Five months after Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston, Texas, the island
city on the Gulf of Mexico below Houston is struggling to recover. The
economic slump in the nation as a whole has made the task more
difficult, but many islanders are determined to rebuild their homes and
their lives there.
The party is in full swing at night in downtown Galveston as the city celebrates Mardi Gras, a smaller version of the big party held every year in New Orleans, 640 kilometers to the east. The event culminates on Tuesday, with parades and street parties. Both cities rely on these tourist-drawing celebrations for their economic vitality and both are ever more dependent on them as they recover from hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in August, 2005 and Hurricane Ike caused widespread wind, surge and flood damage to Galveston on September 13 of last year.
Although many restaurants and hotels are open and thriving on the influx of visitors, nearly 75 percent of shops in downtown Galveston remain closed and some of the island city's biggest employers have either moved elsewhere or are considering moving.
Dottie Rutledge, who has lived here since 1968, lost her home to the hurricane and now lives in a hotel on vouchers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Galveston is totally forgotten. There are piles of stuff here that nobody has picked up," she said.
Aside from her personal frustrations with the government and the insurance companies that have yet to provide funds to rebuild her house, Rutledge worries that the recession hitting the United States now will further undermine efforts to revive the local economy.
"It is going to make it much worse here because the jobs in Galveston are gone," Rutledge said. "There are too many businesses that are not going to rebuild and too many of them just moving off the island."
Betty Strickland, another displaced local resident, fears Ike may have permanently crippled her hometown.
"Galveston is half the size it was. We had 64,000 people before and we have about 32 [thousand] now," Strickland said. "The school enrollment is down 50 percent. People are not coming back to Galveston. They sent 400 employees from American National Insurance Company to the mainland. Galveston is a dead town. You can put a tombstone on the other side of the causeway, because it is gone."
Another threat to Galveston's recovery is the closing of a children's hospital and a proposal to move another hospital to the mainland. Both hospitals sustained heavy damage from flooding during the hurricane. The University of Texas Medical Branch, which includes research facilities as well as a general hospital, is Galveston's single biggest employer. A consultant group hired by the University of Texas regents recommended moving the hospital to the mainland. Local officials are fighting hard to convince the regents to keep the facility where it is.
City leaders acknowledge the difficulties their community faces as it struggles to recover, but they remain confident that it will recover and prosper if both the state and federal government provide the support they need. Galveston, one of the oldest cities in Texas, was almost completely destroyed by a hurricane in 1900 and it never regained its status as a major port city after the building of a ship channel that connected Houston to the coast. But many of the people who lost homes here more than a century ago rebuilt and kept the city going and many of the people now living temporarily in hotels on federal vouchers say they will continue their struggle to remain because this is their home.