Bolivar Ferry shutdown still questioned

November 12, 2008 10:27:45 AM PST
Some residents are still talking about the decision to close the Bolviar Ferry before Hurricane Ike's arrival.ROAD TO RECOVERY: How you can help | Person locator | Important phone numbers | Assistance from FEMA | Filing a claim

The road off Bolivar peninsula is still littered with cars.

Resident Billy Flannagan said, "There's no reason for those cars to be there."

They're silent reminders to the miscalculations hundreds of people made as Hurricane Ike approached, ending up stranded. Some are still missing.

"They're dead," Flannagan stated simply.

At 10pm on September 11, the predictions were already dire.

"We could see most of Bolivar Peninsula under water with this storm surge," said Meteorologist Tim Heller on that date.

That was a full day before Hurricane Ike rolled in. The Bolivar Ferry was getting ready for its final trip at 11pm that night.

Everyone on Bolivar had been ordered off the peninsula, but hundreds of people stayed after the order. Roy Arrimbede's mother Magdalena Strickland was one of them. She'd spent the day packing her Port Bolivar home with family and was planning to leave the next morning.

But that morning, the Bolivar Ferry was already closed just a few miles from their home. There was no way out that way. So Roy's mother set out driving up Highway 87, but she didn't make it off the peninsula. Weeks after the storm, they've yet to find her body.

Arrimbede said, "If (the ferry) had been open, they would've gotten out of here."

The Coast Guard says it had no choice.

CDR Bill Elliott with the US Coast Guard explained, "The ferry is not a primary evacuation route. If you're going on the ferry, you're going towards danger."

The Coast Guard says policy shuts down the entire port 12 hours before gale force winds arrive. They say it's the same for every storm.

"We want to do it the same every time, so everybody understands the process," Elliott said.

But it's not. Just five weeks earlier, during Tropical Storm Eduoard, the ferries never stopped running. It may've led to false sense of security. Officials with TxDOT admit the inconsistency needs to end.

"In this case, it was more serious," said Bill Mellini with TxDOT Ferry Operations. "We needed to shut down 24 hours in advance. I think for a larger storm event like Ike, that's something that should be standard."

Eduoard was no Ike, though. The storms were completely different. Ike's storm surge came hours earlier than anticipated. When the ferries stopped, four feet of water had already moved into the bay.

"It's very difficult to secure the vessel at four and a half, five foot tide," Mellini explained.

But when water is that high, it also covers the highway. There is no way out.

"They've got to find another way," said Flannagan. "They just can't turn people away at the ferry landing when they know the other end is under water."

It is the contradiction of life on Bolivar -- people who are self-sufficient on a peninsula that is easily cut off.

"You can't change it. It's already happened," said Arrimbede. "All you can do is find some answers and try to put some closure to it."

The Coast Guard says there is nothing it would do differently.

It took weeks for the ferry to reopen. The storm brought silt and sand into the channel between Galveston and Bolivar. It had to be dredged before the ferry could reopen to the public again. Some landings still need to be repaired.

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