Galveston, Texas: On Path to Recovery from Hurricane Ike, but Much Remains to be Done

Galveston Rebirth LogoReport by Peter H. Brink
Vice President, Programs
National Trust for Historic Preservation

I just spent the weekend of March 13-15 in Galveston.  The particular reason was to be part of honoring George P. Mitchell for his amazing work in restoring Historic Galveston and also to see first-hand how recovery was coming since my last visit in October, this past year – some four weeks after Hurricane Ike hit Galveston and Texas on September 13.  I toured extensively with Dwayne Jones, executive director, Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF), a Local Partner of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Historic Galveston is indeed a special place of architecture, history, and island beauty.  Suffering America's worst natural disaster in the 1900 Hurricane with 6,000 deaths, it built a massive 17-foot Seawall and elevated much of the city with fill from the adjacent bayous.  Its preservation and revitalization over several decades earned it designation of one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust in 2003.  

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Galveston's Dickens on the Strand celebration

Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation

The island showed its courage and determination when GHF held its annual Dickens on the Strand, the first weekend of December – with the community carrying out this magical Victorian celebration with verve and success.

Overall this island city is coming back, albeit slowly, thanks to Mayoral leadership, many  home-owners fixing up their homes after flooding, a competent job by FEMA, and hard work by Galveston Historical Foundation and other non-profits – with George Mitchell the shining example of reinvesting in the city.

The award of the Spirit of Vision Award by the Chamber of Commerce brought nearly 300 Galvestonians together, and included a video of George's work in historic preservation, including a brief part by me.  George and his wife Cynthia had received the National Trust's highest award, the Louise Dupont Crowninshield Award, in 2001.

The event took place at the 1911 Hotel Galvez, which suffered only minor damage and is fully open for business.  It has been beautifully restored by George Mitchell and is a member of Historic Hotels of America. The views over the Gulf's surf are breath-taking.

Strand Mechanic National Historic Landmark District, view South on 22nd.

Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation

The 15 block Strand National Historic Landmark District looks good physically in terms of recovery from the 10 - 13 feet of water that engulfed it during Hurricane Ike. All buildings have been cleaned out, and rehab work is underway on most.  George Mitchell estimates that his 20 plus historic buildings on the Island suffered some $20 million damage with insurance covering about $10 million – he is doing the rest. (One hard lesson learned was that George's 39 elevators were not locked in upper-floor positions as Ike was downgraded to a Force 2, and so when power went off, they automatically descended to their lowest positions…and were wrecked by the ensuing flooding.)

Some beloved businesses are open for business – such as the Old Strand Emporium; others will open in a couple months – such as La King's Candy Factory.  The historic Tremont House hotel is slated to re-open in May/June.

Other businesses are slowly coming back, but this is a work in progress. Fully open is GHF's 1877 Barque ELISSA and adjacent sea food restaurants overlooking the Port side of the Strand. 

Also threatening is the damage that Ike did to the cast-iron architecture of Galveston. Salt-water permeated the columns and arches, weakening the interior brick support and greatly accelerating rust.  Strong measures must be taken to save this architectural legacy.

In the heart of downtown, the Grand 1894 Opera House has re-commenced a full schedule of performances, including Asleep at the Wheel with Bob Wills the first weekend of March.

House Raising: a Galveston tradition. (Ball Street, East End National Historic Landmark District)

Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation

The nearly 40-block East End National Historic Landmark District – a treasure trove of Carpenter Gothic and Greek Revival houses is looking good on the exteriors, despite some 6 feet of flooding. Many houses are raised above grade, and most seem largely repaired, with the help of insurance proceeds.  Demolitions there are almost non-existent.  At the same time many families have not returned and some are selling their homes. There is still a great deal to do here to bring the East-End back to being a vigorous neighborhood. 

Probably worse off among neighborhoods is Bayou Shores to the west; it suffered major flooding and damage from the surging English Bayou, and demolition of many of these 1950 – 70s houses seems necessary.

Driving through expansive other historic districts – filed with vernacular houses from the 19th and early 20th centuries – Dwayne Jones points to a number of homes restored in recent years by the GHF Revolving Fund.  Through a referral by the National Trust to the marvelous 1772 Foundation, GHF just received a $100,000 grant to strengthen the revolving fund.

A building purchased with Galveston Historical Foundation's revolving fund.

Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation

A special effort is being made with African-American homeowners in the North of Broadway historic area.  GHF had received a Partners in the Field grant of nearly $150,000 from the National Trust from the Robert Wilson Trust, and this was quickly revised to enable hiring of Darryl Daniels, an architect with experience in New Orleans and of African-American descent. Darryl is working through May with homeowners on repairs and also with neighborhood churches and leaders to gain greater planning protection for the neighborhood.  

GHF is also dealing with tremendous water damage to the 1861 U. S. Customs House, a National Historic Landmark, where their offices are located.  Despite costly remediation, moisture still remains in the original plaster walls of the ground floor – to a level of five feet.  Similarly the 1859 Ashton Villa house museum needs extensive additional work on its soaked furnishings. Overall GHF's revenues have been slashed, and it remains in real need of additional donations and grants.

Bishop's Palace, March 2009

Credit: Galveston Historical Society

A bright spot is GHF's nationally acclaimed Bishop's Palace (Walter-Gresham Home), named as one of the United State's 100 most significant residential structures. Damage was minimal, the house is open, and actually had more visitors this January and February than for those months a year ago.

The National Trust provided small emergency grants to GHF toward immediate clean up work and a series of lectures and discussions on the disaster recovery.

Two huge political issues are now being addressed by Galveston leaders and will be resolved in the coming few months:

  • Convincing the Texas Legislature to fund the University of Texas Medical School at Galveston so that this major teaching hospital will re-open again – current signs look promising for this to happen; and
  • Convincing Congress or the Obama Administration to waive the 25% local matching requirement for FEMA awards, as was done after Katrina for Louisiana and Mississippi – certainly a powerful precedent.

Salt-water damaged oak trees on Broadway.

Credit: Galveston Historical Foundation

Finally, everyone is holding their breath that the great majority of the Live Oaks and Magnolias will come back from the salt-water.  The City has flushed many with clear water, and the rain during my weekend there was welcomed by all.

For more information on this historic city's valiant recovery, please visit GHF's website: