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.
"I am afraid of loss. I am afraid our home will be destroyed. I am afraid we may be in danger. I am afraid for everyone here," she wrote.
For much of the storm it was actually quiet inside, other than some distant rumblings and thunks -- until someone tried to open a door, at which point a giant dentist's suction could be heard outside. But by 11 p.m. the storm found new ways to scream, and even the Weather Channel reporters wouldn't go out there.
People slept on chairs, on the floor, propped up against walls. Those on hand included all guests from the Holiday Inn next door, where lawyers had produced for those checking in a document titled "Release and Covenant Not to Sue," stating:
"WHEREAS, a natural disaster, hurricane, is about to descend upon Galveston County, Texas including the location of the Holiday Inn (the "Hotel"); WHEREAS, as a result of the impending disaster, the Hotel . . ."
The lawyers may have sensed tragedy in the offing, but the San Luis still had elements of a beachfront resort. The artificial waterfall continued to splash away on the seaside lawn even as the wind flicked its waters into the air. The executive chef made heroic buffets, heavy on the fried shrimp. The power stayed on, for a while.
At 7:37 p.m., the hotel lights flickered drowsily.
And at 7:44.
And at 7:49, the power was out for good. Generators produced feeble lights here and there. The resort was no more, replaced by a shelter that as the night went on grew more and more damp, with soggy towels offering better footing, and oversize trash bins catching leaks from the ceiling.
The firefighters and police officers began to gather after dusk as the winds made movement on the island treacherous. Information became scarce: No one knew how many people might have been hurt out there, or might have perished. Uncontrolled fires raged in several locations. People called emergency numbers, but they were told: No one can come save you now.
The mood in the hotel grew somber when, at the close of a news conference about 10 p.m. Friday, the mayor, Lyda Ann Thomas, asked everyone to pray for the residents of Galveston. We don't know what we'll find out there in the morning, she said.Stubborn Resolve Crumbles
By midnight, the sea was heaving asphalt and smooth stones up the driveway of the San Luis. Seawall Boulevard became the beach. The wind stripped the facing off the Holiday Inn, and eventually did the same for part of the San Luis.
And then just after 2 a.m., the wind stopped blowing. Galveston was in the eye. For more than an hour, birds flew around and crickets chirped and mosquitoes emerged for a snack.
"Ground zero," said Stuart Robinson, a British storm chaser. "Asking a chaser what it's like being in the eye is like asking a mountaineer what it's like being at the summit."
Another chaser, George Kourounis, pointed to a seagull flapping overhead: "That bird probably came from Cuba."
Out of the night came a man wearing nothing but swimming trunks. It was Jason Reuter, 34, who owns a bake shop and had planned to stay at home, until he saw the water rising. He splashed his way to a cousin's house. They panicked when the water reached the bottom of the windows. They launched a boat and, with five others, motored their way through the dark streets, past house fires, calling into the night to see if anyone needed help. Finally, they tied the boat to a palm tree, and he swam and ran his way in the eye of the storm to the San Luis.
"I'm just so happy I'm alive," he said. "I was so scared. I prayed the whole way over here."
The worst part of the storm, everyone agreed, came after the eye passed through. Even the hard-core storm chasers took shelter. No way could anyone stand up in those winds. This was not the sound of wind anymore, but an industrial noise, something almost unnatural.
Marjorie Anderson Henck, 67, endured the maelstrom with only her three cats for company. She'd refused her son's entreaties to leave the island. She'd been through every hurricane since the unnamed storm of 1943. Her grandmother Annie Apffel Anderson, born in 1888, had survived the devastating storm of 1900 that killed at least 6,000 people here in America's worst natural disaster.
But riding out this storm was a mistake, she said Saturday morning, her hair still wet from fetching ditch water to flush her toilet.
"It was horrendous," she said. "I'm feeling rattled right now, and I'm hungry."
In the process of the night, her household gained a new member: an orange kitten, maybe 6 weeks old, cowering under her bed. She'd heard it meowing in her back yard during the eye of the storm. The creature was sitting on a cushion that was floating like a raft in her flooded yard.
She brought the kitten inside, and by Saturday morning had yet to persuade it to eat.