Hurricane Ike Hits, A Report From Peter Brink

From October 7th, 2008 Quarterly All Staff Meeting.

 

Many of you know that I was Executive Director of the Galveston Historical Foundation (GHF) in the 1970's and 80's.  Now our hearts and help go out to Galveston, TX and adjoining communities in this time of need.

 

In the early hours of Saturday, September 13, Hurricane Ike smashed into Galveston Island and Houston, TX.  While it was clocked as a category 2, with winds of 110 miles an hour, the storm surge of about 13 feet and the related flooding made the damage far worse.  Thankfully, the Galveston Seawall held.  This 17-mile wall was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in response to a storm in 1900, which killed some 6,000 people and destroyed one-third of Galveston.

 

Reports of damage to historic structures started coming in as the executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, a National Trust Local Partner, was in touch with me even as the storm approached.  Ultimately:

  • The surge plus flooding from Galveston Bay inundated the Strand, a National Historic Landmark district, with 8 feet of water and left a coating of sticky mud in its wake.  This is the Victorian commercial area adjacent to the Port that GHF had used a Revolving Fund to revitalize in the 1970-80's.  
  • The East End Historic District, 40 blocks of Victorian houses, and also a National Historic Landmark, suffered nearly 6 feet of water. 
  • Central areas of the City, neighborhoods of well-to-do professionals in mid-20th century houses, suffered surprisingly bad flooding.
  • Smaller vernacular houses were especially vulnerable in poorer areas.

Later events showed that the sewage system and the water treatment plant had been damaged.  Nearly 20,000 of the City’s 65,000 residents had stayed home despite a mandatory evacuation order.  Due to these problems, most of the residents who had left were not allowed to return until Wednesday, September 24.

 

The only silver lining was that it could have been far worse.  Because Galveston is a few feet above sea level, the water receded quickly (though damaging structures in its rush back out).  The 1877 Barque ELISSA, “The Tall Ship for Texas”, came through nearly unscathed.  Even as the storm was about to hit, we had made contact with GHF and quickly put out a call on PreservationNation for volunteer structural engineers and architects.  To date 60 had responded and contact information has been sent to GHF, the Texas Historical Commission (THC), and Preservation Texas.  THC and Galveston are even now scheduling assessment visits by many of these volunteer experts.

 

Within a few days the National Trust for Historic Preservation, GHF, the City of Galveston, THC, and Preservation Texas had started regular conference calls to coordinate action.  The National Trust also:

  • Provided full coverage on PreservationNation, including soliciting donations for GHF as well as our Ike disaster response fund.
  • Provided 500 copies to GHF of its publication on treatment of flooded historic buildings, which are being given to every person seeking a building permit in Galveston.
  • Used our experience in New Orleans to advise on key steps to take.
  • Revised our $147,000 challenge grant to GHF so it could hire an additional staff person ASAP to help with recovery.  This grant is part of the Partners in the Field grant from Robert Wilson and is over 3 years.
  • Had Daniel Carey, our Southwest Office director, do a first-hand assessment this past Wednesday.  This includes extensive yellow tags in the East End Residential District.
    The City of Galveston, with its Preservation Officer, has proved outstanding.  Survey work with photos and GIS locations was largely up-to-date. The local Historic Commission continues to function well.  With National Trust advice, the City Preservation Officer will play a lead role in preventing unnecessary demolitions with FEMA funding.

The Hotel Galvez, a member of our Historic Hotels of America, continues to be open.  A huge challenge for Galveston will also be drawing back its normal millions of visitors as soon as feasible and keeping its businesses viable.  The National Trust Communications Department has committed to help publicize the huge public event, Dickens on the Strand, which GHF will go ahead with this December.

 

A couple of additional key points:

  • There are only 16,000 Flood Insurance policies written for the Island; an estimated 20,000 families and businesses don’t have any.  This raises concerns of Strand and other small businesses going broke.
  • The recently passed Appropriations Bill includes $50 million for Galveston infrastructure repairs; much needed for sewer system and water treatment plant.
  • Galveston at the moment is both a mess AND is booming due to all the contractors and workers responding to the damage.  It will come back, with help from its friends.
  • Nearby communities were hit even worse.  Reports from our Partner organization in Houston, the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, indicate extensive wind damage to particular office buildings and trees falling in some historic residential areas.  Electricity was knocked our for millions for a number of days, but utility crews from all over the country are helping here and in Galveston.  Overall Houston came through reasonably well, and the City government is handling the recovery well.