Southeast Texas bouncing back a year after Ike

CRYSTAL BEACH, Texas (AP) - September 12, 2009

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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.

Driving through Crystal Beach and surrounding communities, Willis points to survey sticks with red flags sticking out of empty lots, signifying where new homes will be built.

"That one's new. That's new," she said. "New. New. New. Everywhere you look, it's a new house."

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.

After seeing how Ike's storm surge ransacked her three-bedroom Bridge City home and covered all her belongings in mud and mold, LaWanda Sorrels, 39, said she wanted to run away and never return.

But today, she, her husband and 16-year-old disabled son have moved back after 11 months of living in a relative's home and in a FEMA trailer.

The year hasn't been easy. Sorrels' family didn't have flood insurance. FEMA's maximum payment, $28,800, wasn't enough. Sorrels paid for supplies to repair her house using her sister-in-law's Home Depot credit card. She had to withdraw $76,000 from an annuity meant to pay for the care of her son, who has cerebral palsy. Volunteer laborers from around the country also helped her rebuild.

"There were times I thought the stress would get to us," she said. "The walls in our trailer seemed like they were closing in. But we made it through together and we are stronger because of it."

In the fishing village of Oak Island, along Trinity Bay, most of the 300 homes there were washed away or severely damaged. Hand-painted signs with street addresses on empty lots are often the only way to know where a home once stood.

But no one still lives in a car or tent in their driveway, as they did in the months following the storm, the third to hit the Texas Gulf Coast that summer. The landscape in this Chambers County community is dotted by some newly built houses as well as FEMA mobile homes.

However, the recovery from Ike continues to be hard for residents like Bang Duc Nguyen, who is still in a FEMA trailer with his wife and three daughters. He can't afford to rebuild his three-bedroom home because the storm also destroyed his three blue crab fishing boats.

Nguyen, 59, has rebuilt, but to a smaller size, a warehouse he had bought just before Ike hit and hopes to build up his crab-selling business so he can one day rebuild his home, which did not have flood insurance.

He tries to remain optimistic about his family's future but wishes more attention and money were directed to help people like him, who have limited resources and come from smaller, rural communities like Oak Island, recover from the storm. For now he depends on help from organizations like Boat People SOS, which helps Vietnamese refugees.

"We feel like we're left behind," he said.

Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia said the state's distribution of federal funding to help with new home construction has been slow.

"The mandate from the federal government is you will get money as fast as you can," said Sylvia, the county's chief executive. "It's not happening as fast for the folks that need it."

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."

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said dealing with FEMA remains a challenge.

While Galveston, like other Ike-damaged communities, faces a drop in property tax revenues, Thomas said she is pleased that 75 percent of city businesses are now open, that most residents have returned and that the city's tourism-based economy had a "reasonably good summer."

"We've done well," Thomas said. "But we have a long way to go."

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