What's Left: A Ravaged Island Covered With Rubbish

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 14 -- As Texas Task Force 1 convoyed into the west end of Galveston Island Sunday morning on a search-and-rescue operation, it immediately had to dodge a herd of cows. Livestock roam free in the wake of Hurricane Ike. This is a wild place now, where Nature has invoked a preference for disorder.

Anything not built on stilts on this island should have been. The storm scoured away everything below the second story of a house. A ground-level business called the Seaside Bistro has a new entrance about 30 feet wide. One homeowner has written on plywood: "I No Like Ike."

Cars are scattered, mired in ditches, at least one completely upside down. A mobile-home park is completely destroyed. The vast majority of houses survived more or less intact, though some on the beachfront now lurch sideways; one has collapsed like a souffle. A few appear to have exploded. Here and there, you see an intact roof sitting in a field like a windblown hat.

The hurricane does not appear to have been as lethal a storm as many feared it would be, but it was efficient in trashing this 32-mile-long coastal island. Hardly any property has been spared damage of some kind.

Rescue workers are going house to house, urging people to leave, telling them it could be four to six weeks before they get power and water. There had been widespread fear that the west end had been obliterated in the storm, because it is beyond the thick concrete seawall that protects much of the city of Galveston. Search operations after the storm were hampered by the high water and impassable main road. Convoys moved out Sunday morning, focusing on foot patrols, knocking on doors, making lists of people encountered, marking houses that were structurally unsafe, and of course looking for bodies.

Instead, the task force -- with members from as far away as Sacramento and Los Angeles -- found a desolate, ravaged landscape. There was hardly a soul in sight, only a few die-hards who told their stories of riding out the hurricane. Plenty of vacant, roughed-up houses, though, and an unbelievable amount of rubbish.

But property isn't all that matters.

"It's just stuff. We're all safe," said Donna Jones, 59, as she picked through the debris at her daughter Colleen's house. "The people here are pretty resilient. They'll just clean it up."

Next to the house was parked a jet ski that arrived during the storm.

"Finders keepers," Colleen Jones said.

Nearby, a resident warned National Guard members to be wary of an aggressive mastiff on the loose. Also, look out for snakes.

"The original name of this island was 'Isle of the Snakes,' " said Kirby Dever, 48.

He stayed put throughout the storm, his neighborhood somewhat protected by a short seawall. At one point during the night, he saw a stray boat moving down his street as though it had a pilot. His truck was carried off a knoll of land, then carried back almost to where it came from. He blames the media for hyping the dangers of what he calls "a regular hurricane thing."

His neighbor, Tim Galvan, a former law enforcement officer, came in after the storm and found a piece of an airplane, what appeared to be a nose cone, against the fence in his side yard. "It had to have come from the sky," he said. He also found a necklace. "Real pearls," he said as he showed them off.

In Jamaica Beach, one of the few people left is Elizabeth Madson, 45, a property manager and part-time bartender. She had car trouble and decided to take her chances, a decision she regretted as the storm blew in. She was alone, no power, no phone, and the house began to shake. Without a seawall, there was nothing to stop the waves from rolling right across the island, smashing against the pillars of the house as she watched from the second floor.

She prayed all night.

"God said I was going to be okay," she said. "And I trusted that. I'm pretty sure He said, 'Don't do this again.' "

* * *

Some sights in Galveston are shocking. Much of the sensory input is simply repulsive. Just off Broadway Boulevard you see an oversize stuffed teddy bear floating in a puddle, face up, and a stuffed dog wedged into the fence of a housing project. Then you realized the stuffed dog is real, someone's pet, a fluffy collie that must have been just trying to escape to higher ground.

With the grid down, and no running water, Galveston is a humid, dirty, reeking mess.

Officials on Sunday decided to evacuate by bus many of the hundreds of Galveston residents who have been staying in increasingly dire conditions inside Ball High School. Most are poor and African American. Many are sick or in wheelchairs.

The toilets had filled to the rim by Saturday afternoon. The floors were treacherously slippery and many people had fallen, including women with babies. Most people spent their hours during the day on the steps outside, getting away from the interior odor, darkness and humidity.

"Katrina should have taught everybody some lessons," said a furious Sheila Bell, 47.

"This is an absolute disgrace. That's not how you treat people," said Edward Whatling, a Galveston resident who had considered staying in the shelter until seeing the conditions.

Susie King, another rescued resident, said she and others were carried to the shelter in garbage trucks, "like we was trash."

The city improvised the shelter. When officials announced a mandatory evacuation of the entire island on Thursday, they said there would be no shelters.

Friday morning, as water rose, the city announced that the high school would be open as a "shelter of last resort," with minimal provisions, including no cots or anything other than food and drinking water. Some 261 people wound up at the high school during the hurricane itself. Many were taken there after being rescued from rising water.

Dee Dee Clemmons, 45, said she didn't know a hurricane was on the way until the water began to rise. She hadn't kept track of the news.

"It's a nightmare," she said.

The first night, everyone slept on the slick floor with some police officers watching over them.

During the eye of the storm, the police moved people to the second story.

By the second night, the Army National Guard and FEMA had brought in cots and a few portable toilets. But it was still no place anyone would want to be.

"It's terrible," said Galveston police detective Joey Quiroga.

Quiroga made a hurried announcement on the steps of the school: "Everybody's going to get on the bus."

"Where are we going?" someone asked.

"San Antonio. You're going to have food, water and shelter. Because you're not going to have it here for four to six weeks."

By day's end, the last of the nearly 1,000 people who ended up at the shelter were loaded on buses for the trip off the island.

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