GALVESTON (AP) – Like many communities along Texas’ Gulf Coast five years ago, Galveston suffered the wrath Hurricane Ike, which became the state’s costliest natural disaster.
A storm surge as high as 20 feet and winds of up to 110 mph damaged 80 percent of the island city’s homes, flooded its historic downtown district and washed away much of its beaches, which are an important part of Galveston’s tourism based economy.
Five years later, tourism and economic development levels are higher than before Ike as beaches have been replenished and homes, businesses and other structures have been repaired.
While construction projects still dot the landscape and the city’s population is down nearly 11,000 residents, Galveston leaders and residents said Thursday they believe their city has rebounded well. Others across Southeast Texas echoed those sentiments, saying despite the ongoing rebuilding, their communities are in pretty good shape.
“I think Galveston was wonderful before Ike but I think everyone is pulling together to make it a better place,” Mayor Lewis Rosen said.
Ike made landfall near Galveston — located about 50 miles southeast of Houston — early on Sept. 13, 2008. The storm ended up causing more than $29 billion in damage and was responsible for more than 100 deaths, including 12 in Galveston and Chambers counties in Texas. Power outages temporarily crippled Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.
One of every three jobs in Galveston is tied to tourism, and officials attribute the city’s recovery in part to repairing hotels, restaurants and tourism infrastructure and investing more than $125 million in new attractions. Last year was its best tourism season on record, with 5.7 million visitors.
“Tourism is one of the biggest reasons Galveston has recovered so quickly,” said Meg Winchester, director of Galveston’s convention and visitors bureau.
On Bolivar Peninsula, a narrow strip of land just northeast of Galveston, some 3,600 homes and structures were washed away to the mainland or were severely damaged.
Mac McDonald, president of the Bolivar Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, said the devastation in his community of Crystal Beach looked like “an atomic bomb went off.” The only thing left of his home was a septic tank. McDonald decided to buy another home instead of rebuilding.
Five years later, a construction boom of residential and vacation homes continues on the peninsula, where many Texans get their beach time.
“I think it’s come back a lot faster than most people thought it would,” said McDonald, who has lived there for 15 years and owns an air conditioning company.
Much of the debris from the peninsula washed up in Chambers County, north of Bolivar.
County Judge Jimmy Sylvia said all 13 million tons of debris has been cleared but work continues on various construction projects, including repairing drainage gates that prevent salt water from coming into freshwater marshes and polluting farmland. Agriculture is an important economic engine in the county.
“We’ve done a lot. We could have done more. Am I happy? Yes and no,” Sylvia said. “The bureaucracy that you have to go through … Thank God we haven’t had another hurricane.”
In Bridge City, a community of 8,700 residents, most of them petrochemical workers, fewer than 20 of the town’s 3,300 homes were unscathed.
“We have pretty much rebuilt, probably 98 percent,” Mayor Kirk Roccaforte said of the city that’s northeast of Bolivar.
Bridge City’s population, which fell after Ike, has been steadily climbing back since the storm and is right at or just above pre-hurricane levels, Roccaforte said.
“The people here were absolutely ready to help each other and that’s been the biggest part of the comeback for the city,” Roccaforte said. “The residents were ready to get up and go and help each other and get back on their feet and that’s what we did.”
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