First too much water, now not enough.
The Texas Gulf Coast's recovery from Hurricane Ike — which submerged the marshes in seawater, scouring away beaches, ruining thousands of acres of vegetation and wiping out much of the wildlife — is being stymied by the state's worst drought in 50 years.
The drought has deprived the land of the cleansing rains needed to purge salty residue left from the tidal surge Ike dragged in when it slammed into the Texas coast on Sept. 13, 2008. The toxic soil and contaminated ponds have kept plants from regrowing and animals from nesting, driving off some species altogether.
"We're very far behind in our rainfall, and that's made a bad problem even worse," said Jim Sutherlin, manager of the 25,000-acre Murphree Wildlife Management Area near Port Arthur. "We've not had nearly the rains we need to reverse the damage to the landscape."
Lance Wood, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Texas has endured a dry year with rainfall totals among the lowest since the state began keeping track more than 100 years ago. Precipitation levels have been down 13 to 19 inches along the coast between Beaumont and Galveston.
"It's one of the worst droughts we have on record," Wood said.
Coastal marshes provide a vital natural buffer between the ocean and populated areas, cutting down the storm surge, absorbing toxic water and reducing inland flooding.
Human effort needed now
While the delicate lands wait for replenishing rain, workers are racing to burn debris, replant grasses and trees in the fertile soil beneath it, and restore habitats before the next monster hurricane forms in the Gulf of Mexico.
"If we're going to live on the coasts, we have a responsibility to put on our boots, put our shoulder to the shovel and put all this stuff back together," Sutherlin said. "If enough people are concerned about what happens to this land, we can stay here. But if we don't do that job, then we all better move away and live somewhere else."
The state received $7 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to restore the coastal habitats after Ike; about $500,000 is earmarked to restore and fortify the dunes at the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge.
Dean Bossert, manger of the 43,000-acre refuge, said the surge's relentless waves bulldozed the sand backward, dumping it into freshwater ponds and smothering vegetation. Another hurricane this year would have an even more devastating impact because of the damage from Ike, he said.
"Ike destroyed what beach ridge we had left," Bossert said. "Now we have absolutely nothing to stop the saltwater from flooding into the marsh."
Due west, at the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, the immediate concern after the storm was not the beach, but the massive debris field.
The 34,000-acre refuge covers the south end of a peninsula that juts into Galveston Bay. When the surge receded, it left swamped boats, the remnants of obliterated houses and piles of refrigerators on the wetlands.
Only the most salt-resistant plants survived, and refuge manager Tim Cooper said the area's population of frogs, toads and salamanders was decimated.
"Places that were alive with the sounds of frogs at night are now totally silent," Cooper said. "I don't know the exact numbers, but that storm definitely had a sweeping effect."
Ike also wiped out oysteries in Galveston Bay by smothering them with silt, said Bill Balboa, a biologist and the state Parks and Wildlife Department's ecosystem leader for the bay.
The state Parks and Wildlife Commission recently voted to shut down oyster harvesting on the east side of the bay for two years to allow about 8,000 acres of damaged reefs to recover.
But Balboa said the marine ecosystem will ultimately benefit from the storm because native grasses uprooted from the coastal marshes were sprinkled onto the bay, providing nutrient-rich food for fish.
The signs of Ike's power are more starkly visible at LaBelle Ranch, nestled between the Murphree and McFaddin refuges.
Buzzards hover over skeletal gum trees with thick piles of snarled grass at their bases. The debris had wrapped around the gum trees like aprons, choked the root systems and killed them.
Ranchers move out
Cattlemen who used the LaBelle land for pasture have moved herds elsewhere until the grass grows back and fences can be rebuilt.
Jimmy Broussard, a co-owner of LaBelle, fears some ranchers may have left for good.
"Some of them said they just couldn't come back here and take that risk again," Broussard said. "Ike just highlighted the risk that this area has to them."
The ranchers had been responsible for much of the land maintenance, Broussard said. Without them, the mounds of debris have remained and given root to invasive tallow trees and weeds.
Terrie Looney, a coastal and marine resource agent with the Texas Sea Grant conservancy group, said salinity levels remain unhealthy in ponds across the region. Ranchers have little choice but to relocate herds that need fresh water, she said.
"There's no grass, there's salty water — where do you put them?" Looney said. "Sometimes, you've got to do what you've got to do."