Years before superstorm Sandy, Texas city faced similar struggles after Hurricane Ike

Fire destroys homes along the beach on Galveston Fire destroys homes along the beach on Galveston Island, Texas as Hurricane Ike approaches. (Sept. 12, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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One year after Galveston, Texas, was battered by the most costly hurricane in the area's history, residents and public officials were still trying to figure out how they would put their lives back together.

The city's water and wastewater systems, which failed during Hurricane Ike in September 2008, were limping along on patchwork repairs. So were the landing lights at Galveston's airport, where traffic was still down by a third from a year earlier. Several flooded schools and firehouses had yet to reopen. And the city was dotted with vacant buildings, including many of the 17,000 houses damaged by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

And state and city officials were still squabbling over how the more than $1.6 billion in federal housing and infrastructure recovery funding allocated to Texas would be spent. A year after the storm, not a penny had been spent to rebuild a single flooded house, wrecked road or shattered sewer system, officials said.

"They had not even begun to identify the people who needed help rebuilding their homes," said Betty Massey, chairwoman of the Galveston Community Recovery Committee, which the city empaneled to help plan Galveston's rebirth.

Four years before superstorm Sandy battered Long Island, Hurricane Ike swept over Galveston, swamping the city in 8 feet of water. The experiences of residents along Galveston's low-lying streets, which are barely 200 yards from the Gulf and just 8 feet above sea level, are in some ways similar to those of residents affected by Sandy on Long Island's South Shore, many of whom are still struggling to rebuild.

 

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Slow progress

In Galveston, homeowners who had storm-related insurance were facing uncertainty over whether to start construction with what they had, or to wait to supplement their insurance dollars with promised public recovery money that had not arrived.

By the one-year mark, Monica Cruz, whose ranch house on Avenue P stood 8 feet above sea level, had moved back into her flooded home with her husband and three children. But a year later, city inspectors told her the work was not done to code. She had to tear down her house and rebuild.

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William Jenkins, who lives next door to Cruz, borrowed more than twice the original value of his home to raise it onto 14-foot stilts and begin repairs. But he was not back into the house a year after the storm. And when contractors were done two months later, there were so many vacant houses in his neighborhood that his was not worth the $180,000 he paid to fix it.

Ike damaged about 80 percent of the buildings in Galveston, a historic city with homes that predate the Civil War. More than 10 percent of the 55,000 residents never returned. Most of the damage came from a storm surge that overtopped the 10-mile-long, 17-foot-high seawall built after the deadly Galveston hurricane of 1900.

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the city's largest employer and the region's only trauma center, remained closed for four months, and did not regain its trauma-center status for more than a year.

A downpour on the eve of Ike's one-year anniversary overwhelmed storm drains still clogged with debris, sending water cascading into the streets. So many of the city's hydrants had been bathed in salt water that fire officials would hold their breath when opening some of them fearful they wouldn't work.

The storm also destroyed 569 units of public housing in Galveston, a city where more than one in five lived below the poverty line in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Department. A year later, opposition to replace the subsidized housing spilled into the political arena, as opponents said it would attract a low-income population the city could not afford to care for.

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Eager to return home

Most homes that flooded were 1950s and 1960s ranch houses built on concrete slabs. They had been grandfathered into federal flood insurance requirements introduced in mid-1970s, which required any new house built in Galveston be raised above the flood level.

Grandfathered homes with damage exceeding 50 percent of their value had to be elevated 11 feet or torn down, according to Galveston officials. The Federal Emergency Management Agency granted an extra $30,000 to homeowners with flood insurance to cover the cost of complying with the tougher reconstruction requirements.

The city banned all rebuilding until it could assess the damage on each structure. But that overwhelmed the tiny planning department, which was forced to operate out of a temporary facility because winds had ripped the roof off City Hall.

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"People were living in trailers for two, three years after the storm," said former Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, referring to the more than 170 FEMA trailers still in use a year after Ike.

Residents displaced by Ike found themselves eager to rebuild -- often with little certainty over what local regulations would allow them to do, whether and when wind and flood insurance checks would arrive, and whether federal relief programs for the uninsured would help them.

Residents desperate to get back into their homes also had to quickly decide who to trust with construction work. Fly-by-night contractors often demanded upfront payments to get started, only to disappear with work half complete, officials said.

"We didn't have much time to think, and had to pick any contractor we thought could help us -- plumbers, Sheetrock, electricians, carpenters," Cruz said.

The Cruzes qualified for a city-run assistance program that used federal Community Development Block Grant dollars to rebuild their home.

"We were able to move back in a month and a half ago," Cruz said.

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