Hurricane Ike: A Letter from from Galveston Island

Hurricane Ike roared ashore Friday night September 12-13th with a direct hit to the extreme east end of Galveston Island and the Bolivar straights/ship channel.  With hurricane force winds bordering on a Category 3 and a storm surge equal to a Category 4, Ike damaged 75% of the structures on Galveston Island and obliterated many areas of the Bolivar Peninsula.  When all was done, downtown Galveston would have 12-15 feet of water, flooding virtually every business in the downtown area.  The beachfront would look immensely different with no structures remaining over the water except for a badly battered Flagship hotel.  Boats were all over town and blocked the highway coming into town.

I had stockpiled every conceivable item that we would possibly need for what was to come and the aftermath.  Enough water for 7-10 days; water in buckets and the bathtubs for flushing toilets with plastic bags for lining the toilet as a back up;  kerosene fuel for our oil lamps;  batteries for flashlights and radios (the battery operated TV was in the trailer at the ranch);  plenty of non-perishable food.   Both of our cars were fully fueled.   Windows boarded.  Generator upstairs ready to be placed on the back porch as soon as the storm was over.  Etc, etc, etc.  

As it turned out, we were without running water for slightly over 2 weeks, electricity for 3 weeks and natural gas for approximately 4 weeks and all of our stock piling and emergency planning was put to good use.

During the first half of the storm, we could feel the wind gust and subside and gust again.   Just before the eye reached us, the surge that caused massive flooding pushed across the Island and the water came up very quickly.  It took 2 hours for the eye to pass over us – an eternity as it seemed that night.  We went out on the front porch to survey the damage.  The color seemed an ashen hazy gray and even though it was the middle of the night it did not seem that dark because of the full moon that shone brightly through the eye.   But no matter which direction you looked off of our porch, you could see the orange glow of fires that were burning all over the Island- some thirteen different areas.

Once the eye had passed and the wind began to build, it built to a tremendous force and did not let up - it just blew with a pressing force for several hours.  That is when many structures simply could not withstand the force and much of the damage from wind occurred.  At one point, with the low barometric pressure, no air moving and the swaying movement of the house. I felt more seasick sitting in my chair than I had on one of our cruises through a tropical storm that had 35 foot seas. 

The winds had subsided sufficiently for us to go out on the porch by about 7 am Saturday.  It had been a long twelve plus hours.  The first thing that I did was to put our US flag back out –because we fly it 365, but also as a symbol that we had made it through and were home and ok and that the house was intact as a shelter and place of refuge.   Late Saturday afternoon people who had stayed began to move around on foot, bikes and cars.

The biggest problem was that we were having trouble getting cell phones to work and by the next morning (Sunday) the message on the phone screens was “Service Restricted” – the military had taken over the cellular towers that were functioning and our phones were essentially useless for outgoing or incoming calls.

We set up living on our front porch and ate, slept, visited and functioned from that base for what would be almost a month.  Saturday night I laid down on cushions and a pallet on the porch and slept hard for at least five hours for the first time since a four hour stint on Thursday night.  I was awakened at 4 am Sunday morning by a huge convoy of medical supplies, emergency crews and military transports going down Avenue Q.  Many of them would be setting up operations at Ball High School parking lot and practice athletic field just seven blocks away.  By daybreak Sunday, the sound of helicopters flying very low over the Island could be heard almost constantly.  In what was an eerie and somewhat surreal sight, Blackhawk military helicopters – complete with guns mounted and visible - were running continuous reconnaissance and rescue missions with a flight pattern right over our porch.  It was both a sobering and comforting sound. 

Saturday, Sunday and Monday until noon the Island was under a media blackout and no official news was being broadcast or reported – that was really weird.  We had weather radios, crank radios, access to radio/TV stations and we could not get any news.  Monday at noon, the County Judge and Mayor began daily press conferences.  Our only reports during the first two and a half days were from the corner of 48th and Avenue Q where virtually everyone who passed stopped to exchange information. 

Our generator made morning coffee for folks as far away as 35th and Avenue O to enjoy each morning during those first two and a half weeks.  Starting on Monday following the storm, trips to the “pods” set up at 47th and Broadway and at 48th and Seawall became part of the daily routine.  The pods were staffed by military personnel and supplied ice, water, military rations and an abbreviated Galveston County Daily News which was being printed and trucked in from Victoria - one trip through the pod per family per day.  Our neighbor still had a truck that would run and for morning coffee and various items she supplied transportation. 

There were eight of us left in our immediate two block radius and we pooled our resources and worked together to meet any needs any of us had and to keep an eye on our immediate area.  The police patrols were great, but so was the foot traffic of folks none of us had ever seen before and even though we were dispersed throughout the neighborhood there were lots of houses that stood empty. 

Search and rescue teams went door to door across the entire Island and I visited with them Sunday morning before noon.  The message from them, once they received a head count, was that we needed to leave the Island because there was no water, electricity, sewer or gas and it would be weeks before service was restored.  I explained that we had everything that we needed and that they needed to mark on their count that we were NOT leaving.  It took me saying that several times for the national guardsman from Phoenix to understand that we were not leaving.  We then joined countless other citizens who attempted to be essentially “invisible” to rescue workers because we had no intentions of leaving the Island. 

The initial projections were that 16,000- 20,000 people had stayed on the Island for the storm.  It would be almost two weeks before those who had evacuated would be allowed back on the Island.  I was willing to help anyone with anything they needed but I was not leaving.

Our daily routine became coffee, social exchange, pod trip, tours of neighborhoods to find older adults who needed help, information exchange on the corner, Salvation Army and Red Cross hot meals brought into the neighborhoods in canteen wagons and cooking the food that we all had that was perishable. 

Intertwined with the daily activities were interactions with insurance companies and adjustors, FEMA, cleaning up, documenting everything in writing and by photo. I volunteered to help Trinity Church and the diocese with soliciting FEMA funding and   other sources of revenue to help fill the gap in the insurance deductibles – almost one million dollars - and worked taking supplies (ice, water and food) to older adults who could not get out. 

As I bring this letter to a close, we still have one room to clean out and gut and we have not settled with the windstorm adjustor.  We have replaced both of our cars.  Life goes on although it will be some time before everything is back to normal.