Galveston Is Transformed Into an Island of Second Thoughts

Hurricane Ike pulverized the Gulf Coast with maximum winds of about 100 mph and left a wide swath of flooding and devastation in its wake.
By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 13 -- This island has been beaten to a pulp. There is debris everywhere: chunks of asphalt, sheet metal, roofing tiles, uprooted trees, unidentifiable flotsam. The ocean ripped heavy concrete benches from the seawall and threw them across the road as if they were made of Styrofoam.

The landmark Balinese Room used to sit on pilings just off the sea wall. It's gone. The storm surge chewed it up and spit it out onto Seawall Boulevard. Souvenir seekers rummaged Saturday through the debris field.

The worst place to be in a hurricane is just on the right side of the eye wall as it spins onshore, the wind speed of the eye combining with the forward motion of the overall storm to deliver a roundhouse blow. Saturday, that worst place was Galveston.

The residents had ample warning. The city issued a mandatory evacuation order for the island. But thousands of people chose to stay, many of them fearing a repeat of the horrendous traffic jams in advance of Hurricane Rita three years ago. They stayed even as Ike grew to stunning dimensions, seemingly filling up much of the Gulf of Mexico.

Few people had a more harrowing night and morning than Lela Goff. She's the caretaker of an elderly man who couldn't be moved. She stayed with him all night and watched in horror as water, surging over the seawall, filled her neighborhood. The water rose to window level.

"We looked out our bedroom window, and we saw the Gulf of Mexico," she said.

It got worse: A house next door caught on fire. It spread to two adjacent houses. Firefighters rescued the elderly man; she caught a ride back home with journalists even as the houses were shooting red flames from their roofs.

This was an island full of second thoughts as Friday night turned into Saturday morning and the storm found new volume, new ways to hiss and whistle.

"I really felt like everything was going to cave in," said John Covington, 43. "I'm thankful to be alive. God bless."

'I Am Afraid for Everyone'

The command center for the city is the San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center, a swank hotel built atop an old Army training center with eight-foot-thick walls. As the storm blew in, the hotel swelled with more than 500 people. Everyone was here: The storm chasers from England, the society lady with a Shih Tzu, the mom pulling two kids on leashes, the cops, the firefighters, the mayor, hotel staffers, some local boys complaining about the lack of beer, Geraldo Rivera and an army of battle-hardened weather reporters.

In the ballroom, someone at the piano played the theme song to "Titanic."

Camping on the floor in a hallway with her infant daughter, Cynnara Hill, 27, wrote in her journal, preserving the moment for Lily.

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