Ghosts And Survivors

November 13, 2008

A few weeks ago, writing about the recession, I’d mentioned the 1981 ska hit Ghost Town by the Specials:

This town is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down…

…do you remember the good old days
Before the ghost town?
We danced and sang,
And the music played inna de boomtown

Sunday evening we drove down the Strand in Galveston. Dark, empty, one or two lights in second-story lofts, an occasional glimpse of a washed-out storefront: I felt that I was in the Ghost Town. A single police car’s lights shining on a side street broke the spell, but briefly.

In our five years living on the Island, I always felt it was a haunted place. Now, with Ike recalling the Great Storm of 1900 when eight thousand or more perished, Carla of 1961, Alicia, and others, the boundaries between one world the next seem as thin as ever.

To be certain – and sane – a visit by daylight would have shown a lot more activity, even in the most desolate areas by night. Now we approach Galveston around four in the afternoon, seeing a line of cars coming north, toward temporary homes, while we head south. In this waning day two lights shine brightly just before the Causeway: The Ocean Cabaret and Dmitri’s, strip joints on the last of the mainland, look if anything better than they have in years. Apparently Ike brought them a new coat of paint, and business as usual.

Virtually all the debris we’d seen on TV piled along the of the freeway, the boats, the housewares, the pieces of wood and sheet metal, are gone. Bayou Vista blossoms with intermittent blue tarp roofs, and new siding is going up on ground-floor garages below elevated homes.

The Causeway itself is clear and clean. The new spans, a multi-year headache, are now complete, open in both directions. Ike delayed the work by only a couple of weeks, and only a few finishing touches – Move those Jersey barriers! Turn on the streetlights! — remain. So far, so good.

Reaching the end of the Causeway reveals a different view. Payco Marina’s boatyard, now mostly a field of wrecked metal siding. Metal buildings weren’t meant for hurricane-force winds. The Pepto-pink-stucco “God’s Love Is On This Island” church, walls crumbled. Relatively new bayou-side homes on stilts, almost untouched. Older condos or apartments, damaged: Are they habitable? We can’t tell.

Turning on 61st Street to head for the Seawall, we see those big Canary Island Date Palms in the esplanade, all still standing, just a little worse for wear. Off to the right, though, every block brings another beached damaged boat on the side of the road. Are the owners hoping to repair them? Or is this debris still not carried away? To the left across the bayou, we see residential docks askew.

By Stewart Road, we’re getting into the rhythm: One business is shiny and open. The next is empty and battered. The new CVS and Walgreens face off across the intersection, competitive beacons. The HEB on the third corner will never re-open. That shopping center, long on life-support, is near its last. Randalls is busy. The Bank of America has a dumpster in the parking lot and an RV parked in the drive-through. Not ready to open, though maybe a temporary ATM is tucked in back behind.

Is that the apartment building where the wheelchair-bound woman was rescued by her upstairs neighbors, a band of elderly and disabled left behind in the hurried evacuation? It must be.

The destruction, the recovery: This one is taken, that one remains. The hurricane is like some sort of architectural Rapture in reverse. The purple monstrosity in the end of the pier at the Seawall, gone. The massive resorts, the glass pyramids, the big hotels, the faux volcano, here. Joe’s Crab Shack, a big banner: “Open.” The Spot, resplendent with motorcycles lined in front, also open and full. But the mud-flap mermaids on the low-rent Flagship, gone, peeled away with the hotel north wall. That hotel, doomed like the other structures built over the water without benefit of the Seawall’s protection: Hooters (there’s that reverse-Rapture again). Murdoch’s. The fabled Balinese Room, like Galveston itself, living on past glories and stories, now blown low.

Could that be Miller’s Landing, rising now like a comic-book version of a Victorian mansion? They said they were remodeling last year, but…? It used to be a diner. Anyhow, this is our destination: Catfish. The prices are up a dollar or two from when we moved from the Island, but the food is abundant and tasty, and the sunset view brings a wave of nostalgia. I tell Freddie that I feel like we hadn’t left, it’s all still here. You feel that way looking out at the water, away from the Island. The Seawall neighborhoods flooded the least, if at all, and with a little patching and painting it all almost seems good as new. We have no window facing the other way.

By the time we are done with dinner it’s fully dark. We decide to drive up to look at our former home near downtown. Going up 19th Street, we start to see piles of debris here and there, on the sidewalks, edging into the street. It comes out in waves from people’s homes, as they are able to get in and pick through their belongings, carrying out furniture, carpets, and more. Then the city comes and picks it up, then more debris comes out, eventually getting to wallboard, flooring, appliances, etc. The Daily News reports that FEMA ended assistance for local debris pickup; it had continued for months, elsewhere, after Katrina. Local governments are appealing the decision, but meanwhile foot the bill.

By the time we hit Broadway, the pattern is clear. Some apartment buildings and homes have large piles of debris, others are clear. Some few have a light on in an upper floor; lower floors are consistently dark. The Broadway Esplanade still has nearly all the massive oaks. The city has bravely tried to flush out the saltwater-soaked soil in the hope they will recover. The grass is dead brown carpet, the trunks and branches, skeletons. Winter came early, though the temperatures are warm.

Almost home. The Presbyterian Church has a large tent and a mobile home in the parking lot. Turning onto Winnie, we see more spotty debris piles. The two houses that blew off their foundations in that Spring wind a couple years stood up well to Ike. The old Victorians are standing proud, but shabby. Dead palms. Dead hibiscus. The ’60s ranch-style house by 18th lost a carport. We turn again, then turn on Church.

Dark. There’s a light in an upper apartment window facing a balcony, one of the converted Victorian mansions. Another light a couple doors down. All the single-family homes are dark, then we see a light on that balcony: What was her name, Margaret, Caroline…? I hate not remembering. Patricia’s house still has her synthetic high-tech windstorm barriers covering all her windows. The Sifuentes, who were next door to us, are boarded up; good thing Elizabeth moved not long after we did. I miss the homemade tamales she gave us at Christmas. I miss many things.

There is our old home. Dark, dark. All the windows still boarded up. The boxwoods, dead. Look how high the palms are; they will come back. At least the paint held up well, but the house looks abandoned.

We had to come back here at night.

Freddie says he wouldn’t want to see the neighborhood by daytime, things might look even worse. But we might also see people working, fixing restoring… It’s going to take a long time to get back to anything near normal.

Look! There’s a light on at Ruth’s on the corner. We stop. There’s her car! Let’s go and see her!

We stop and walk up to her door. It swings open as we knock and call, then her voice comes down. She has just arrived, moving back into her home for her first night there since a hasty evacuation before the storm. The days since, she has bounced from family to friend and back, then to a storeroom with a couch and a microwave above her workplace. We greet, we hug, and again, and again. She takes us to accompany her to feed the neighbors’ semi-stray cats next-door.  This couple is present less often while their home is repaired. And then, back for the tour of her own house, downstairs gutted, all furniture removed.

When Ruth first moved into her home, we greeted her on the first day and took her a plate. The neighborly thing to do, it seems, or maybe we were the Gay Welcome Wagon.  Now, though we live fifty miles away, we’re still neighbors.  We help unload her car and carry the boxes upstairs. At least she has her own bed, miniature appliances, and room for her pet.

We visit and share the news: The gas meter cost thousands of dollars to replace and relocate. The electric company sent two months of estimated bills, hundreds of dollars, covering a period when there was no electric service. The insurance is slow, and the check must be processed by the mortgage lender, another ten days, before she can pay to get the roof repairs started. Don’t ask about FEMA. The city demands a building permit for almost everything, and the permit office is overwhelmed. A question about whether the house must be elevated – again, higher — was settled in her favor; it makes sense, since the house was relocated to the lot less than ten years ago.

Time.  We hug and hug again.  Time to head home.  Another stray cat comes across the street: Recognition. This white and black cat knows us, from when we lived here before. Who knows where it went for shelter during Ike. Who knows where it stays now. The cat survives, like Ruth, like thousands of Galvestonians, like the Island itself.

The survivors are not doing well, and their stories are not being told to the country at large. As with New Orleans and Katrina, Galveston has thousands of public housing units which were made uninhabitable by the storm. The actual proportion of public housing relative to the city’s population is higher in Galveston than in New Orleans.

The residents of these homes, although not displaced to other states, have no place to go. Many have no cars and cannot move to the Mainland.  Those who lived with relatives and were not listed on apartment leases, whether public or private, are typically now not eligible for FEMA or HUD post-disaster assistance. Others who do qualify may live from week to week or month to month in hotels, while officials delay deciding whether to extend voucher programs just a little bit longer.  Or, an apartment voucher comes through, but there are no apartments.

Housing shortages continue not just in Galveston but in several coastal counties on the Mainland, too, along with the delays in placing FEMA mobile homes.  Officials and bureaucrats tie each others’ red tape in knots, while Oak Island families are sleeping in tents in the yard of their former homes.  For many people, from Bridge City to Shoreacres to San Luis and beyond, it is impossible to plan for tomorrow, much less for a slightly more distant future.

Back in Galveston, the UTMB hospitals are running at about ¼ of their former functioning. The trauma center is gone, and many other essential services. You can have a baby here now, but it’s a bad place to have a heart attack. This week 3,800 job cuts were announced at UTMB, the same week that a pork-laden national bio-hazard research laboratory was opened on the same campus. Whoever thought that a low-lying barrier island which receives a major hurricane every twenty or thirty years was a good place to store the most dangerous pathogens? Meanwhile, the hospitals across the street that provide indigent care for 160 of the state’s 254 counties are a shell of their former selves, and may not recover.

Yet Galveston will survive, and the ghosts, too, will survive and prosper. However, the Island will never be the same. I expect that it will come back, once again, as a shadow of its former self, or former selves. The new Galveston will probably be wealthier. There will be fewer poor people, and fewer middle class and working people. The cost of a home, the cost of insurance, the lack of well-paying jobs – all of these are driving residents away, even from before the storm. Ike has accelerated that trend with a single blow, making room for the leisure class, the second-home set, and the holiday visitor.

Perhaps Galveston will become a Texas version of Biloxi, beaches and resorts. With luck, good or bad, the Legislature will approve a Mississippi-style casino or two, and maybe there’ll still be some jobs available for working-class commuters from La Marque and Dickinson. The Island can still trade on it’s storied past, the Pirate Jean Lafitte, the Strand a miniature family-oriented Bourbon Street, the East End a pint-sized Garden District.

Ghost Town. Survivor Town. One and the same.

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