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Guidry News Forum
Creating a New Galveston After Hurricane Ike
by William Merrell
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

William MerrellOn September 13, Hurricane Ike passed directly over Galveston Island and we were hit hard. Rows of beachfront houses have disappeared as have bay front communities. Galveston’s business and entertainment district is deserted at night and many are still without power. Wind and salt have killed trees that graced our streets including many of the monarch oaks in Galveston’s famed historic districts. Favorite bird watching reefs no longer exist and sensitive ecosystems are being overrun by salt tolerant species.
Galveston’s permanent population is estimated to have gone from 57,000 to about 40,000.  Seventy-five percent of our homes and businesses were damaged. Only 70% of GISD students and 68% of Galveston College students have been able to return and those numbers are dwindling. Nearly five hundred of Galveston’s schoolchildren are not are not able to return to their pre-Ike homes. As in any disaster, the poor and elderly are the hardest hit. Most public housing projects are condemned and not expected to reopen this year.  Construction workers have displaced many poorer residents who did not enjoy long-term housing contracts.  
Our Island will recover, but to what?  How might we make our area less vulnerable and more resilient to coastal hazards as well as improve the economic sustainability and livability of our communities. In responding to the mess Ike left us in and the heightened realization of how devastating hurricanes can be, we need to make some tough choices collectively. Instead of bringing Galveston back to its previous state, one that was vulnerable both physically and economically; let’s take it to a better place. To do this, we need to face up to a number of issues that we, as a community, have ignored or let slide for too long.
I’ll give three examples of changes that I think would bring fundamental improvement to Galveston and the region.  There are other changes that could be made, other ideas to improve our community. They are your ideas and I’d like to hear them too. As it was in late 1900, this is a time to listen to ideas, agree on those we need to pursue, form the necessary goals and objectives and, most importantly, unite as a community to accomplish them.
First, let’s protect the entire Galveston Bay region from storm surge.  Recent discussions have focused on building a dike around the east end of the Island - essentially surrounding the area now “protected” by the seawall.  This approach argues that, while the seawall did its job in preventing catastrophic overflows like what happened at Bolivar, a surrounding dike is needed to prevent the backfilling of the Island by heightened bay waters. Because I rode out the storm on the Strand, I can personally attest to the usefulness of this approach for the downtown, but we can do better. 
Considering the entire Galveston Bay region, making a series of circling dikes like the one proposed or the existing Texas City Dike, will heighten the surge elsewhere – leading to more circling dikes to protect other Galveston Bay cities. Eventually we’d be forcing higher surge farther and farther up the Bay. This approach does not protect from disaster, instead it shifts disaster to other locales. So let’s think more like the Dutch and protect all of Galveston Bay including its valuable ecosystems as well as property. 
The best way to do this is to extend the seawall west past San Luis pass and east across Bolivar to High Island and put flood gates at the Bolivar Roads entrance to the ship channel, San Luis pass and the Intercoastal canal connections to the Bay.  This approach provides permanent protection to the entire region, both built and natural environment; prevents local mitigation actions from harming their neighboring areas; costs less than a series of circling dikes; and takes advantage of the entire region’s tax base and political power.
Second, let’s make Galveston’s entire downtown something really special, both for us and visitors. A city needs a viable core to thrive. We were slowly creating one before Ike but the core we had begun to build was flooded deeply and severely damaged. While much of our seawall businesses are up and running, our city core is filled with cleanup and construction workers during the day and eerily deserted at night. As they struggle to come back, our long-ignored downtown merchants need hope and a vision of something better.
We are blessed with an historic downtown that is a model for what new communities are trying to create as town centers – charming buildings with shops and restaurants on the first floors and offices and lofts above.  Ironically, one outcome of Ike’s flooding so many Island homes is that residents have purchased downtown condominiums and lofts. Can we keep them there, create more viable and enjoyable work places by day and a dynamite entertainment district at night? Let’s start by agreeing to truly connect the historic downtown to the waterfront and UTMB. There have been many thoughtful discussions of this in the past but little accomplished.
Dealing positively with Harborside Drive and Magnolia Homes is critical and possible. The Port of Galveston controls the waterfront and is essential to making this area more accessible and enjoyable to residents and visitors.  Everyone likes being near the water and while we have the Texas Open Beaches Act controlling access on the beach side we, as a city, control access to the Bay side. The Bay side already has a strong start with a working port, ship traffic and a cruise ship terminal. As a former Wharves Board member, I’m well aware that the Port, while owned by the City of Galveston, does not have a tax base and has to raise its income from port properties. We as a community need to develop incentives for the Port to help the entire area.
For example, because much of the Port’s income from cruise ships is parking related, there is less incentive to push for cruise lines using Galveston as a Port of Call, but that’s exactly what the downtown merchants need. Serving as a Port of Call, brings shoppers, high end retail and economic stimulus all badly needed in the downtown area. We should pursue this option to enhance downtown Galveston.
We need to work through many other issues – parking, walking trails, lighting, dealing better with organized events – but it can be done. We can make the downtown a great place to live, work, play and visit. A strong City core generating taxes helps the entire community. Individuals are already working to rebuild their individual properties. For example, George Mitchell has committed $30 million to bring his properties back. Let’s all work together to rebuild and reshape the entire area.
Third, let’s make a promise to Galveston’s children and their families, the Galveston Promise – a promise that upon graduation all long-term GISD students will receive funding for tuition, required fees and books at the state college of their choice. Let’s accompany that with seamless ways for Galveston students to receive higher education here on the Island that is tailored for good jobs in the region.
Someday FEMA will tally the costs of Ike in the billions of dollars, but the true costs go far beyond the monetary. We have to recognize that the impacts on our children may be the most devastating and long-term of all. Perhaps the most important response to Ike is helping them in these difficult times. They are, after all, our future. We must work together as an entire community to raise expectations and hopes for Galveston’s schoolchildren and their families. The Promise does that.
It is also the greater community’s interest to have more families stay in, come back or relocate to Galveston. Other communities have taken bold moves to address outward migration problems. In particular, the Kalamazoo Promise (essentially the same promise I’m proposing for Galveston, but using Michigan schools) has gone a long way in turning around a situation in Kalamazoo, Michigan that was almost as grave as Galveston’s.  It is also in the greater community’s interest to increase GISD’s and other educational institution’s enrollments. It’s not only great having young people around but a strong educational system offers good jobs to the community. Nearly 85 percent of Galveston College students come from island institutions. Besides being the right thing to do for our children, there are good economic reasons to support creating a Galveston Promise.
The educational community is working together to accomplish educational excellence goals. There are many examples. In particular, a Galveston P-16 (Pre-school through college) Council has been formed and funded by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. It’s chaired by Bowen Loftin, CEO of Texas A&M University at Galveston and includes David Callender, president of UTMB; Myles Shelton, President of Galveston College; Lynne Cleveland, Superintendent of GISD; Betty Massey, Mary Moody Northen Endowments and is recruiting members of the business community. Their initial work has been aimed at making the Galveston educational experience for students better at all levels by using the institutions’ educational assets and creating seamless paths to higher education.
We are blessed with University of Texas and Texas A&M University campuses and an excellent community college to help with GISD and higher educational objectives. We have a lot to build on in creating the Promise. The Galveston community does a lot now to encourage students to continue their education after GISD.  The graduation ceremony at Ball High School celebrates an impressive number of scholarships and grants awarded to graduates to pursue higher education. Moreover, Galveston College’s Universal Access program guarantees all recent Galveston graduates free tuition.  The Galveston community must repackage and add to the considerable resources that it already offers high school graduates to create a Galveston Promise is powerful enough and attention getting enough to entice students to graduate and for their families to live in Galveston.
Ike was a perfect storm in many ways, its wind speed causing a deceptively weak category 2 rating while its huge size pushed a massive surge over us at high tide during a full moon.  Politically, Ike hit just before a financial crisis and presidential elections diverted the nation’s attention. So we, as other Galveston citizens did in 1900, will need to lead the effort to rebuild and obtain resources. A successful recovery will involve us making wise decisions locally and persistently telling our story nationally.  After the 1900 Storm, William Phares Chochran described Galvestonians as … “people, mainly optimists safeguarding a community of interests, endowed with grit, persistency, an abiding faith in their ultimate destiny and a notion that theirs is the best place on earth.”  Let’s work together to make sure that statement still describes us after another hurricane a century later.
William Merrell holds the George P Mitchell Chair at Texas A&M University at Galveston and is president of Merrell Historic Properties, Inc. Biography

Remembering Jim Guidry

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