Video: ‘A grieving that still goes on’

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msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 6/1/2009 10:33:36 AM ET 2009-06-01T14:33:36

The beaches of Galveston, Texas, were packed for Memorial Day.

“There’s new sand. There’s people everywhere. Everybody’s happy. Beach looks beautiful,”  said Leann Payne of Baytown, Texas, one of an estimated 250,000 holiday visitors to Galveston, a sliver of an island just off the coast. “Couldn’t ask for anything better.”

In fact, you could.

As officials prepare for the Atlantic hurricane season, which begins Monday, residents of Galveston and other coastal areas of Texas are still a long way from getting back on their feet from Hurricane Ike, which pummeled the state on Sept. 13.

“Many of the most severely impacted communities may face years of recovery before they can even begin to see their communities made whole again,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency said in its official impact report three months after the storm.

Ike caused $11 billion of damage on Texas’ coast, FEMA estimated, and more than $8 billion more in neighboring Gulf states, making it the third most destructive hurricane in U.S. history. It was so ruinous that the World Meteorological Organization, which decides such things, retired its name.

Hurricane names rotate every six years, but there will never be another Hurricane Ike. One was more than enough.

It has been 8½ months since Ike hit, but FEMA is still shuttling coastal families back and forth between temporary homes, and officials are still trying to identify all of the 37 people believed to have died in the state — four of the last five bodies were identified last week through DNA testing, The Houston Chronicle reported.

Along the Texas Gulf Coast, people remain jittery. In a survey released last month by CPL. Retail Energy, one of the state’s largest power providers, 62 percent of residents said they did not believe they were prepared for another major hurricane.

Galveston at the center of the storm
Galveston, where Ike made landfall, was hardest hit, suffering nearly $3 billion of the state’s toll. And it is there that the recovery has been most painful.

The last of the state and federal recovery centers on Galveston and Pelican Islands, which make up the city, didn’t close until April. Reconstruction of the city’s seawall still hasn’t been completed, and only one of its fishing piers is usable.

Eighteen teachers were laid off from Ball High School as part of the Galveston Independent School District’s restructuring after  enrollment fell by 22 percent in Ike's wake. Now the high school struggles with a severe teacher shortage, because on some days, nearly a fifth of its 150 teachers are absent as they rebuild and move, Superintendent Lynne Cleveland said.

Finding substitute teachers “is a struggle,” said Lisa Schweitzer, a teacher who took 10 days off this school year to move out of and then back into her home.

“Subs are also in the same place we are, and so many people don’t live here on the island anymore,”  she said.

Classrooms have doubled and tripled up, and sometimes more than 600 students are crammed into the auditorium, said Dean Blair, the school’s principal. On a few occasions, the school has resorted to showing classes informational films or episodes of “America’s Funniest Home Videos.”

The city's economy, which is based on an $800 million tourism industry and the University of Texas Medical Branch, its largest employer, also is reeling. Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said 47 percent of the city’s tax base was in the hardest-hit west end of the island, and she predicted that it would take five years to build it back up.

Damage to the medical center also curtailed health care in the region. The main hospital still has fewer than half the beds it did before the storm, and its emergency room remains closed.

Beach rebuilding boosts tourism
The quarter-million Memorial Day visitors equaled the number of tourists for the holiday a year ago, rewarding officials’ decision to ship in new sand to rebuild beaches along 2½ miles of the 6-mile stretch of shoreline that Ike eroded by more than 50 feet.

“I was actually expecting less but, wow, it’s beautiful,” said Claudia Holloway of Houston, a tourist who returned for the first time since the hurricane. “We love it. And we’re coming back again.”

The turnout was “a good barometer of what the balance of the summer will bring to the island as far as tourism is concerned,” said Lou Muller, executive director of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees.

But in the longer term, FEMA's impact report said, “the double jeopardy of Ike and the general economic slowdown do not bode well for the tourism industry.”

Overall economic data will not be available until next month, but one key measure — business at  hotels — indicates that far fewer people are visiting for more than just a day trip.

Quarterly tax reports on file with the state comptroller’s office show that the city’s hotels registered $12.6 million in taxable receipts in the last three months of 2008, down by 30 percent from the same period the year before.

Thanks to displaced residents and out-of-town contractors rebuilding the city, receipts rebounded in the first three months of this year, the last period for which figures were available. But even with that temporary influx, 19 percent of the city’s hotels with 10 or more rooms reported about $1,000 or less in taxable receipts from January through March.

Medical center damage cripples health care
The University of Texas Medical Branch is an even bigger concern.

Besides being “the economic engine for the city of Galveston,” according to Mayor Thomas, as well as Texas’ largest provider of indigent care and a world-renowned center of biomedical research, it was the primary care center for Galveston and surrounding Galveston County before the storm.

But it “took an enormous hit from Hurricane Ike,” said Joan Haun, the state coordinating officer for FEMA assistance.

Its blood bank, pharmacy and radiology department were destroyed. Overall, it suffered more than $1.3 billion in losses, only $100 million of which was insured, a state audit found in late April. The medical center finally reopened on Jan. 5.

Before Ike, it employed more than 12,500 people and supported about 7,000 other jobs in the region, according to the University of Texas System, which estimated last year that  it contributed about $250 million a year to the Galveston economy and more than $600 million across Southeast Texas.

But Ike closed John Sealy Hospital, the general public facility. Because patient care generated 59 percent of the center’s revenue, it couldn’t meet its payroll, and in November, it laid off a fifth of its workforce — more than 2,400 people. Nearly 600 more employees left on their own.

“Downsizing  has added to the economic loss” in Galveston, said the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a coalition of local governments. The “layoffs have a direct economic impact but also affect Galveston businesses that serve the  workforce and that are already struggling to recover from Ike.”

Sealy Hospital has since reopened, but with fewer than half its previous number of beds, and in place of its emergency room, it operates an urgent care clinic, where patients are treated and released or transferred to other hospitals.

Besides bogging down the local economy, the downsizing of the hospital after Ike has “created a significant crisis” in health care, the Galveston County Health District said in its annual report.

Ambulances now travel an average of 34 minutes to other hospitals, compared with an average 6-minute trip to Sealy before Ike. Critical trauma patients are flown off the island by helicopter.

The hospital says it hopes to have its emergency room open by late summer, but “it is not possible to foresee the future of it, or the health care system, in Galveston County in the near future,” the health district report concluded.

Anniversary planning under way
The City Council recently approved a 42-project proposal drawn up by a long-term recovery committee the city created after the storm, with a goal of “making Galveston a livable community once again.” The proposals would affect virtually every one of the residents, involving projects to improve economic development and repair the environment, housing, human services, infrastructure and transportation.

“There are many ‘legs’ to recovery,” Betty Massey, head of the committee, told the City Council. “Hurricane Ike’s winds and water played havoc with every aspect of life in Galveston.”

This next step comes this week. Thursday, the committee plans a meeting to figure out how to mark the anniversary of Ike.

It’s just three months away.

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