Impressions on Galveston after Hurricane Ike

Posted on: October 14th, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

In a modest response effort to assist the Galveston Historical Foundation with recovery efforts post-Hurricane Ike, I traveled to the area to lend a hand to our Local Partner. I wanted to see the damage firsthand and better understand the situation—both in terms of the state of historic resources and the condition of our Local Partner. By now, many images of Ike have been shared and several reports have come in from visitors. These are brief notes and observation from my trip on October 2-3.

Moving salvaged doors.

Moving salvaged doors.

My senses were a little on-edge as I drove to Galveston after flying into Houston Hobby Airport. It had been a couple of years since Hurricane Rita ravaged the Texas Gulf Coast, but it seemed so recent that my memory was spewing out fresh images of that storm. The first thing that struck me as I grew closer to the Island was the traffic. This was Houston-like traffic, but it was in the wrong direction and 35 miles south of Houston! It felt as if I’d been dropped into a huge contractors’ convention. Once I waded through the traffic and landed on Broadway, the next assault on my senses was the smell…like a big garbage dump. That’s understandable, though, because that’s what much of the Island is right now -- a big pile of fetid debris removed from the first floors of buildings after a thorough soaking by Hurricane Ike’s storm surge. What Ike didn’t blow away, he saturated with several feet of sea water and mud. The locals refer to it as “the nasty.” And it is. Finally, my eyes saw the true wrath of Ike -- block after block of historic resources were open to the elements -- trying to dry out. With carpet, drywall, furniture, appliances and memories all piled up on the street waiting their turn to add to the garbage pile. Galveston Island had turned into a big garbage scow.

I turned off Broadway and drove north a few blocks to the Strand (where I knew it would be worse). I saw a "bucket brigade" of folks passing historic window frames to each other for loading onto a pickup truck. There they were! A line of white t-shirted worker bees with a big red "GHF: Disaster Response Team" logo on their backs…a sight for sore eyes. I knew I had found my preservation friends. It was 8:00 a.m. and they were already hard at it -- salvaging already salvaged materials (!) from one warehouse to another. I joined in the line and we moved all available windows and doors for relocation and reuse out of GHF’s salvage warehouse. What seemed important to me here was that the GHF staff worked side-by-side, quietly, diligently doing what they could -- in the moment  -- to save Galveston’s history.

Chatting with Jones (left).

Chatting with GHF's Dwayne Jones (left) at the work site.

True this was a small effort (and not without blood, sweat, and tears), but the point is, they were there, pitching in. Ike took homes and valuables. He punished Ashton Villa (GHF’s showplace of a house museum) and the US Custom House (GHF’s headquarters) with water and mud (and resulting mold), but the GHF staff did not cower. They came together and started the work of cleaning, repairing and rebuilding. They knew they had to set an example for others to follow. And that’s exactly what they are doing. Under the able leadership of Dwayne Jones, Beth Shriner, Brian Davis, and Denise Alexander, GHF’s staff leaders are responding to Hurricane Ike. They are taking care of their own properties and they are getting into the neighborhoods. They are collaborating with the City of Galveston (preservation officer, Lori Schwarz) and the Texas Historical Commission (executive director, Larry Oaks and his staff). Kudos to all.

But the work wages on. I saw scores of buildings -- important National Historic Landmarks -- with four- to five-foot high water lines inside on plaster walls. Mold was taking root in commercial and residential buildings alike. The East End Historic District -- a great collection of late 19th and early 20th century stock -- was really hammered. But sure enough, people were rolling up their sleeves (and carpets!) and drying out. By my informal and inexact estimations (and only based on what I was able to see), I would say about half of Galveston’s historic districts (hundreds upon hundreds of buildings) are in a bad way. A bad way in that while they are still standing, they did suffer catastrophic flooding and there are emerging issues with foundation-shifting, settling and cracking—all of which will bring scrutiny to their safety and security. As good as the GHF, City and THC staffs are, there are not enough of them to serve the growing need.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has a healthy list of volunteer experts that are ready and willing to go to Galveston and help. GHF is preparing the way for these experts and the next 30-60 days will be critical as assessments are taken and formal recovery plans are made. For those out there motivated to help -- volunteer, send donations to GHF, and do what you can to help our friends in need. I look forward to seeing many of you in Tulsa where we can all hear, firsthand, from GHF and we can all, in turn, figure out the best way each of us can help.

-- Daniel Carey

Daniel Carey is the director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Southwest Office.

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The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

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