SE Texas bouncing back a year after Ike

September 13, 2009 6:31:29 AM PDT
Anne Willis, a lifelong resident of Bolivar Peninsula, moved back to her hometown of Crystal Beach nearly three months after Hurricane Ike. [IKE ANNIVERSARY: Look back at the storm that changed SE Texas]

The storm had shattered homes, leaving only concrete slabs and splintered wooden beams. Electricity had just returned, but at night it was so dark that paper bags floating in the sea breezes resembled ghosts. Services at one church were held for six months under a white tent along a highway.

"There were only 100 people here. Our grocery store had been reopened in an RV," said Willis, who works as a real estate agent. "I thought it was terrible. How are we going to get through this?"

But a year after the devastation, Willis and other Southeast Texas residents are surprised and grateful for the progress they've made in coming back from Ike, the costliest disaster in Texas history. Ike's powerful storm surge, as high as 20 feet, and its 110 mph winds caused more than $29 billion in damage, destroying thousands of homes and fouling farmland and ranches with saltwater from the Gulf Coast through Houston, 50 miles inland.

Ike made landfall near the island city of Galveston, in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, 2008. While power outages temporarily crippled Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city and the center of the U.S. energy industry, it wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast.

Three-fourths of Galveston's homes were damaged. The working-class city suffered more than $3.2 billion in damage and temporarily lost its largest employer, the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Some 3,600 homes and other structures on Bolivar Peninsula were washed on to the mainland or were severely damaged. In Bridge City, a community of mostly petrochemical workers located northeast of Bolivar, fewer than 20 of the town's 3,300 homes were left unscathed.

And a year later, the rebuilding work continues in cities like Crystal Beach, the tiny fishing village of Oak Island to the north in Chambers County and Bridge City.

"People here are very, very resilient. Neighbors helped neighbors. They are willing to do it themselves. This speaks highly of our community," said Willis, who has lived on Bolivar for 50 years and heads the peninsula's Chamber of Commerce.

A year after Ike, there is a "building boom" of residential and vacation homes on the peninsula where many Texans get their beach time.

Driving through Crystal Beach and surrounding communities, Willis points to survey sticks with red flags sticking out of empty lots, signifying where new homes will be built.

"That one's new. That's new. New. New. New. Everywhere you look, it's a new house," she said.

Willis estimates about half of Bolivar's 4,000 residents have returned and between 400 and 500 new homes have been constructed. But the houses aren't going up fast enough for the rest of the population to return.

Mayor Kirk Roccaforte said 65 percent to 70 percent of Bridge City's housing is back up as well as 95 percent of its businesses. But there are still around 600 Federal Emergency Management Agency provided mobile homes in the city, down from a peak of 1,700. Roccaforte himself has been living in a FEMA trailer since November.

After seeing how Ike's storm surge ransacked her Bridge City three-bedroom home and covered all her belongings in a layer of mud and mold, LaWanda Sorrels, 39, said she simply wanted to run away and never return.

But today, she, her husband and 16-year-old disabled son Kevin, have moved back in after 11 months of living in a relative's home and in a FEMA trailer.

The year hasn't been easy. Sorrels' family didn't have flood insurance. FEMA's maximum payment, $28,800, wasn't enough. Sorrels paid for supplies to repair her house using her sister-in-law's Home Depot credit card. She had to withdraw $76,000 from an annuity meant to pay for the care of her son who has cerebral palsy. Volunteer laborers from around the country also helped her rebuild.

"There were times I thought the stress would get to us," she said. "The walls in our trailer seemed like they were closing in. But we made it through together and we are stronger because of it."

In the fishing village of Oak Island, located along Trinity Bay, most homes were washed away or severely damaged by Ike. Hand painted signs with street addresses located on empty lots are often the only way to know where a home once stood.

But no one still lives in a car or tent in their driveway, as they did in the months following the storm, the third to hit the Texas Gulf Coast that summer. The landscape in this Chambers County community is dotted by some newly built houses as well as FEMA mobile homes.

Bang Duc Nguyen, still in a FEMA trailer with his wife and three daughters, says the trailer is cramped but he has no choice. He can't afford to rebuild his three bedroom home because the storm also destroyed his three blue crab fishing boats.

Nguyen, 59, has rebuilt, but to a smaller size, a warehouse he had bought just before Ike hit and hopes to build up his crab selling business so he can one day rebuild his home, which did not have flood insurance.

He tries to remain optimistic about his family's future but wishes more attention and resources were directed to help people recover from the storm. For now he depends on help from organizations like Boat People SOS, which helps Vietnamese refugees.

"We feel like we're left behind," he said.

Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia said the distribution by the state of federal funding to help with new home construction has been slow.

"The mandate from the federal government is you will get money as fast as you can," he said. "It's not happening as fast for the folks that need it."

Gov. Rick Perry, who was highly critical of FEMA's response immediately after Ike, said he feels comfortable with the progress that's been made to help Texas recover.

"I think the federal government has been an adequate partner," he said. "They are never going to get it perfect. You can't get that perfect. But I think they have made a good effort."

FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said the agency has provided more than $2.5 billion in federal assistance.

"FEMA recognizes that there is still work to be done to further support Texas's recovery. We are fully committed to working with our partners to complete that work," he said.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said dealing with FEMA remains a challenge.

While Galveston, like other Ike-damaged communities, is facing a drop in property tax revenues, Thomas said she is pleased that 75 percent of city businesses are now open, most residents have returned and the city's tourism based economy had a "reasonably good summer."

"We've done well. But we have a long way to go," Thomas said.

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