Life After Ike: A Test of Endurance

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

GALVESTON, Tex., Sept. 15 -- Tommy LeCroy, proprietor of Bistro LeCroy, supervises the grilling of steaks and sausages, washed down with fine wine, on the deck of a loft overlooking a street buried in mud. This is the historic restaurant and retail district known as the Strand. The neighborhood is deserted. LeCroy is tending the last feeble embers of the good life.

"Look, we got gourmet wine, good food," he says, accompanied by a small group of hard-core survivors. "But we know we're going to run out of that. Then we'll have to eat MREs and get in line with the riffraff."

Hurricane Ike was terrifying for everyone, but for many the aftermath is worse. Conditions here are degenerating, with stagnant water breeding mosquitoes, toilets overflowing, no operating sewage system, hardly any running water, no power, no gas.

There's no functioning hospital. Officials fear a health crisis will result from the worsening sanitation. Electricity may not return for four weeks.

"The city is in ruins," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said Monday. She predicted that her pulverized city may not fully recover for three or four years. The island is still closed, even to residents who fled before the storm.

"There's nothing to come here for," she said at a news conference. The people who stayed on the island are burdening a city flattened by the storm. The mayor made a simple request of her constituents:

"Please leave."

The news of the sewage problem comes from an unshaven, bleary-eyed man in a Hard Rock Cafe T-shirt standing Monday morning outside the city's Justice Center: Eric Wilson, the director of municipal utilities. He said the generator running the wastewater plant was working fine during the hurricane, but then a piece of debris speared it. Now it's a treatment plant that's not doing any treating.

"It's filling up and it's waiting," he said. "It's not a good situation."

It could overflow into the bay, he said. He's working around the clock to solve huge infrastructure problems across the island.

"Sleep and a shower would be nice. It's overwhelming to a point," he said, but added, "The cavalry has arrived."

That specifically refers to a generator being shipped from McAllen, Tex., that could get the sewage plant working. But there are cavalry here in many different uniforms. They're around Ball High School. There's the Army National Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Another several battalions of rescuers from Texas Task Force 1 are at a Methodist church. Contractors fill the parking lot at Home Depot.

Helicopters fill the air.

More than a thousand storm refugees at the high school were evacuated Sunday to San Antonio. But there are still people here, though no one has an exact count. Some neighborhoods, such as the waterfront and the Strand, are

eerily empty except for the occasional police cruiser.

The rest of the population isn't in the best of shape. One man was evacuated from the West End by helicopter after he was found covered with what City Manager Steve LeBlanc said were 1,000 mosquito bites. The city has asked the county to spray for mosquitoes.

Galveston's beaches are closed because of chemicals, oil and other contaminants spotted by helicopter. Meanwhile, the horizon is filled with tankers and freighters anchored off the coast, and waiting for the reopening of the Houston Ship Channel.

City Hall is heavily damaged, as is the library, where historic documents may have been destroyed in the hurricane.

One tiny piece of good news came with the restoration of water pressure to a few hotels along Seawall Boulevard, where city officials are staying.

The mayor ordered 11 people to be removed from the Flagship Hotel, a heavily damaged structure that stands on pilings in the water off the seawall. They had remained in the hotel throughout the storm despite a surge of water so violent that it destroyed the nearby Balinese Room and two other establishments on pilings in the gulf.

Life after a hurricane is a test of endurance, patience and adaptability. When there's no electricity, life is dark, hot and kind of mysterious -- because no one knows anything other than rumors.

When there's no running water, life gets dirty fast. Humans in the wild are not an elegant species.

At the Strand, the biggest problem right now is the mud. It is from the bay bottom, and it's a silty goo, almost like paint.

"It's going to stink so bad in a couple of days, it'll make you sick to your stomach," LeCroy says. He doesn't appear too worried -- he was a medic in Vietnam.

But Diane Olson, who with her husband, Dale, owns the historic building where the hardy band is hanging on, wonders how long it will be until Galveston gets back on its feet.

"We've put a lot of time and money and heart and blood, sweat and tears in restoring all these places. It breaks your heart that so much damage could be done," she said.

She has options -- she and Dale own a house in California. They could board things up and leave. But, she asked, what about people who don't have money or options or an escape clause?

Soon the steaks and sausages are grilling. Dale Olson opens a fine sparkling wine from Australia. The steaminess of the tropical storm seems to have vanished miraculously. The air is drying out, and a breeze blows across the deck. The sunset is exquisite -- and then Galveston goes dark.

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