On Galveston Island, Adrenalin Before the Storm

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008 6:03 PM

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 12 -- Despite days of warnings and mandatory evacuation orders, about 40 percent of the city's 57,000 residents stayed on the island for Hurricane Ike, City Manager Steven LeBlanc said at briefing Friday afternoon.

Some had already realized the folly of their decision. Authorities conducted 12 "high-water" rescues during the day, he said. One house burned and many gas leaks were reported. The west end of the island, unprotected by a seawall, was badly chewed up through the afternoon by the storm, he said.

"I've never seen it like this," he said. "We were on the good side of Rita. We are not on the good side of Ike."

Those who haven't already left should now shelter in place rather than risk the drive on the wind-buffeted causeway connecting the island to the mainland, Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. The city opened a "shelter of last resort" in a high school, but it has no cots, just food and water. Already 150 people have been taken by authorities to the facility, LeBlanc said.

Although the center of the storm wasn't expected to make landfall until early Saturday, many low lying areas were already flooding Friday morning, and at midday the sea was furious and frothing, sending spray high above the sea wall. LeBlanc said he had received many calls from people who had planned to ride out the storm but were shocked by how quickly the water rose, and who fled at the last minute.

The storm chasers, however, were thrilled, at least temporarily.

"We love hurricanes," said Mark Denison, 48, of Houston. "It will be the greatest storm surge since Hurricane Carla, Sept. 11, 1961, with winds of 145 miles per hour."

Why is he here, on Galveston Island -- a barrier island that appeared to be dead center in Ike's path and where a memorial called the Praying Hand commemorates the tragic 1900 storm that killed 8,000 people in the nation's worst natural disaster?

"It reminds me how big the world is, how big God is, and how small we are. For everything we can do, this is something we can't control," he said.

Some people had less elaborate reasons for being here. Lisa Cardona, 36, was riding out the storm on the island despite the "mandatory" evacuation order.

"I have pets, plus this is my mother's property," she said as two men, one shirtless, listened to loud music from a boom box set up in her side yard. "I have a cat I'm trying to get inside."


"I'm started to get worried now. It's starting to surge."

Cathy Blume, a local sign-maker, couldn't stay in her own home, which isn't protected by a seawall, so she planned to stay with a friend in what seemed like a safe house made of brick. But the friend bolted for Houston.

"I'm not staying here by myself, I'm a widow," she said as she checked into the San Luis Hotel, which, built on top of an old Army bunker, is the de facto media headquarters of Ike.

Some folks skedaddled.

"I'm a B.O.I. Born on island. And I'm not staying," said Jay Balentine, 45, who owns a nursing home. He was parking a pickup in the hotel garage at noon Friday, preparatory to making the run to the mainland. He says the storm surge will likely overwhelm the sea wall, which he thinks has subsided over the years.

"I had to move two boats, one airplane, and now I'm getting out. We could have water over the whole island," he said.

The churning waves hurled debris on Seawall Boulevard and made driving treacherous. By mid-afternoon even many of the storm aficionados had fled, sufficiently impressed that Ike was not to be trifled with.

The storm spawned superlatives among public officials, weather-watchers and veteran hurricane reporters even while Ike remained far out to sea. Jim Cantore, the Weather Channel storm reporter, said, "I've never seen waves set up like this with a storm 200 miles offshore. Never in my life."

There was a last-minute scramble for hotel rooms. The San Luis was overbooked; a few people managed to get rooms next door at the boarded-up Holiday Inn, but the hotel planned to send everyone to the San Luis at 5 p.m. to ride out the storm.

Wanda Lorenz, who got a room at the Holiday Inn with her daughter and two grandchildren, said, "I have all the faith in the world in the San Luis." But not so much her house about eight blocks away: "I hope we have a house to go back to."

One middle-aged couple with a condo at the San Luis traveled to Galveston from their home near Austin. They brought supplies to ride out the hurricane and the aftermath.

"We are widely considered to be insane," said Henry Milton, a science fiction author.

Why were they doing this?

"I don't know," said his wife, Mary Ann. "He wants to do it."

"I just have to. I'm learning so much about how the storm works," he said.

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