Galveston hopes post-Ike census won't cost funding

February 18, 2010 4:04:40 PM PST
Galveston residents were cautiously hopeful Thursday that this year's U.S. Census count won't mean more bad news for their island community, which lost thousands of residents after Hurricane Ike battered the city in 2008.[IKE ANNIVERSARY: Look back at the storm that changed SE Texas]

Galveston officials fear losing millions of dollars in state and federal funding if the Census puts the city's population below 50,000, a benchmark used to determine funding levels for everything from public bus systems to housing and road repairs. Galveston's population before Ike was 57,000; current estimates have it at 46,000.

The 2010 Census Portrait of American Road Tour stopped in Galveston on Thursday as part of its nationwide effort to encourage Americans to fill out Census forms.

Resident Diane Henderson said she thinks "it's possible" the city's final count could make the 50,000 threshold.

"In my block, just about everybody is back," said Henderson, whose home was flooded by more than two feet of water after Ike's powerful storm surge inundated much of the city in September 2008, damaging 75 percent of the city's houses.

Henderson, 60, was able to stay with relatives while her home was repaired, but thousands of other residents had to move off the island while awaiting repairs or rebuilding. Many neighborhoods remain dotted with homes in mid-repair or empty lots where homes once stood.

While officials fear many residents will never come back, lifelong Galveston resident Miguel Aleman said he's still optimistic about the Census.

"But we may fall just a little short," added Aleman, 62, who also is president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Galveston officials said funding losses would hamper recovery and rebuilding efforts in the city, which before Ike had a poverty rate nearly twice the U.S. average and median household income about a quarter below the state average.

"It's very, very important that all of you who are here today spread the word. You will reap the benefits because of it," Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas told a small group of residents gathered outside a community center hosting the Census officials' visit.

Galveston had appealed to the Census, asking that residents temporarily living off the island be included in the count.

Census officials, however, say they cannot make exceptions for communities hit by natural disasters. New Orleans, which lost population when residents were forced to relocate after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, also was unsuccessful in a similar appeal to the Census.

Census officials in both cities are promising to canvass neighborhoods multiple times to ensure every resident is counted.