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Archive for Sunday, September 13, 2009

Texas bouncing back a year after Ike

September 13, 2009

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— Anne Willis, a lifelong resident of Bolivar Peninsula, moved back to her hometown of Crystal Beach nearly three months after Hurricane Ike.

The storm had shattered homes, leaving only concrete slabs and splintered wooden beams. Electricity had just returned, but at night it was so dark that paper bags floating in the sea breezes resembled ghosts. Services at one church were held for six months under a white tent along a highway.

“There were only 100 people here. Our grocery store had been reopened in an RV,” said Willis, a real estate agent. “I thought it was terrible. How are we going to get through this?”

But a year after the devastation, Willis and other southeast Texas residents are surprised and grateful for the progress they’ve made in coming back from Ike, the costliest natural disaster in Texas history. Ike’s powerful storm surge, as high as 20 feet, and its 110 mph winds caused more than $29 billion in damage, destroying thousands of homes and fouling farmland and ranches with saltwater from the Gulf Coast through Houston, 50 miles inland.

Ike made landfall near the island city of Galveston in the early morning hours of Sept. 13, 2008. While power outages temporarily crippled Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city and the center of the U.S. energy industry, it wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast.

Three-fourths of Galveston’s homes were damaged. The working-class city suffered more than $3.2 billion in damage and temporarily lost its largest employer, the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Some 3,600 homes and other structures on Bolivar Peninsula were washed away to the mainland or were severely damaged. In Bridge City, a community of mostly petrochemical workers northeast of Bolivar with about 8,700 residents, fewer than 20 of the town’s 3,300 homes were left unscathed.

And a year later, the rebuilding work continues in cities such as Crystal Beach, the tiny fishing village of Oak Island to the north in Chambers County, and Bridge City.

“People here are very, very resilient. Neighbors helped neighbors. They are willing to do it themselves,” said Willis, who has lived on Bolivar for 50 years and heads the peninsula’s Chamber of Commerce. “This speaks highly of our community.”

A year after Ike, a “building boom” of residential and vacation homes is under way on the peninsula where many Texans get their beach time.

Willis estimates about half of Bolivar’s 4,000 residents have returned and between 400 and 500 new homes have been constructed. But the houses aren’t going up fast enough for the rest of the population to return.

Mayor Kirk Roccaforte said 65 percent to 70 percent of Bridge City’s housing is back up, as well as 95 percent of its businesses. But there are still around 600 Federal Emergency Management Agency-provided mobile homes in the city, down from a peak of 1,700. Roccaforte himself has been living in a FEMA trailer since November.

Gov. Rick Perry, who was highly critical of FEMA’s response immediately after Ike, said he feels comfortable with the progress made to help Texas recover.

“I think the federal government has been an adequate partner,” he said. “They are never going to get it perfect. ... But I think they have made a good effort.”

FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens said the agency has provided more than $2.5 billion in federal assistance.

“FEMA recognizes that there is still work to be done to further support Texas’s recovery,” he said. “We are fully committed to working with our partners to complete that work.”

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