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Monday, September 22, 2008

Galveston, Oh Galveston

Posted By on Mon, Sep 22, 2008 at 9:52 PM

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(Following is a dispatch from Paul Greeley, who spent several years in New Orleans in the 1980s and ’90s as a promotions director at WDSU-TV. Paul has remained in touch with his New Orleans friends over the years, and he filed this report after his first visit to Galveston post-Ike.)


Saturday, Sept. 20

Last night, just as my wife and I are headed to dinner, my phone rings. It’s Paula Pendarvis, a former news executive that I worked with at WDSU in New Orleans, calling me from Galveston Island, Texas, where Hurricane Ike has roared ashore just a week ago. Pendarvis now owns a media consulting company and she’s on the island working for a disaster management company, DRC Emergency Services of Mobile, Alabama as their press liaison. Can I come down to Galveston right away?


I catch the first flight out this morning from Dallas to Houston’s Hobby Airport, where a helicopter picks me up to whisk me down to the island. Driving to the island isn’t an option as no one gets on the island without a special vendor pass, and there’s major gridlock just before the bridge to the island where police have a road-block to check passes.


The helicopter follows I-45, the major road onto the island, all the way down, the pilot pointing out instances of damage along the way, blue tarps over roofs, boats scattered and tossed, debris strewn in spots as if everything were scraped off the ground, placed in a blender and then poured out. The closer we get to the island itself, the pilot stops pointing — there’s no need, damage is evident everywhere.


The helicopter banks low out over the beach on Galveston Island, curls back and drops down on the helipad right in front of the San Luis Hotel, just feet from what is now the gently rolling waves of the Gulf of Mississippi. The hotel, an oasis of luxury and civilization amid a desert of devastation, sits high atop a former army bunker, and is ground zero for all those involved in hurricane relief from Ike. Emergency workers, law enforcement, FEMA, the media, Red Cross and city government officials are all converged here, using the hotel as a staging point and communications center. The parking lot and surrounding streets are filled with large trailers and motor homes, the sound of generators filling the air, making conversation all but impossible.


I’m met at the helipad by one of the videographers Paula has hired to shoot footage for a documentary DRC is producing to show the Ike recovery process.    

He takes me to one of the large motor homes, DRC’s temporary headquarters, parked adjacent to the hotel. Inside a small conference room in the back, I meet Bob Isakson, a former FBI agent, who is the company’s managing director. It’s dark and hot in the trailer as the generator ran out of diesel fuel and it’s no easy matter getting it re-filled and started again. Isakson is tall and broad-shouldered, the kind of guy you’d expect to be an FBI agent. He introduces me to his girl Friday, Careen Plummer, a young, attractive, local Galvestonian Isakson’s hired as his driver, fixer, go-getter, someone who’s knows everybody and finds answers quickly, a major asset when you’re trying to cut through red tape to get tons of debris removed on a small island.


DRC’s been hired by several local governments to collect the debris left in the wake of Hurricane Ike. Isakson’s no stranger to this kind of work, as he founded the company during Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and has worked every hurricane in the US since. The issue of debris removal on Galveston Island has become big news. Pressure is on the city to allow residents back into their homes and thus Isakson and his company have been thrust into the spotlight. Nearly all the island is still without electricity, sewer, gas and other services and to begin the major repairs, the debris must first be removed. Isakson estimates his company has already collected more than 15 million cubic yards from Houston, Harrison County and Galveston.


How does one begin to remove the miles and tons of debris that litter everywhere? First, you find an open plot of land, at least 10-15 acres, and lease it to use as a dump site. It has to be prepped to comply with all the state and federal hazardous materials regulations. Isakson says within minutes after he signed the lease on the first plot, trucks were dumping debris. Isakson has hundreds of trucks taking debris to temporary landfills to be sorted and recycled. Cars and boats get towed to a storage location where hazardous fluids get drained. If left unclaimed, they’ll be crushed and recycled.


While the rest of the country may have forgotten about Ike, it’s still a big story here on Galveston Island, as an estimated 60,000 residents of the island want to return and assess the damage done to the homes. At a noon press conference, the city announced that residents will be allowed to return to their homes on Wednesday, September 24th starting at 6am but that a curfew will still be intact from 6pm to 6am.


I talked to a TV reporter from Houston’s CBS affiliate, KHOU. Lee McGuire has been on the island for the past 5 days, retreating back to Houston each night. This is a big story he says and his station, like many in the Houston area, is here to provide people with the latest developments, when they can return, what to expect when they get here, and where to get help in the recovery process. Tonight, KHOU plans to conduct a live broadcast, sort of a town hall meeting in the pool area of the hotel, with city officials to answer questions from the audience.


Sunday, September 21

We’re up very early to drive down from Houston to Galveston Island. Almost no one stays on the island at night, as there are few rooms or places to stay. I’m with the 2-man videography team from New Orleans-based Gumbo Productions, the firm Paula hired to document DRC’s debris removal progress. It’s still dark as we pull into a gas station near the island. Trucks of all shapes and sizes clog the parking lot as sleepy workers stock up on coffee and cigarettes. As we drive down, the devastation is even more shocking from the ground.


Crossing the causeway onto the island, boats line the highway on both sides, smashed and abandoned, as if their skippers pulled up and left them there to jump into cars and drive away. The island is mostly deserted, but most of the neighborhoods’ streets are clear of debris. No stores are open and cars left to the hurricane’s wrath litter the streets in odd angles, some with debris hanging from the side rear-view mirrors and wheels. No matter how many pictures I’ve seen of boats and cars tossed by hurricanes, it’s still unnerving when you see a 50-60 foot shrimper or sail boat in the middle an empty parking lot or sitting on top of a hamburger stand, its fishnet draped around it as if caught like a tuna.


Although I’m told that many rode out the storm on the island and remain here, I see few residents and no activity except the occasional police car, trucks removing debris or others trying to restore services like electricity and water. The empty quiet in the neighborhoods is in stark contrast to the hustle and noise around the hotel.


I think it was Napoleon who first observed that an army travels on its stomach. That’s true for the legion of workers, law enforcement and others drawn to the hotel. DRC has brought in a large mobile kitchen, officially called the ‘emergency operations provisional center’, but known colloquially as the mess wagon or disaster kitchen. It arrived last Sunday night and on Monday morning began serving about 1500 meals a day from pancakes and sausage for breakfast to brisket and beans for lunch and dinner, plus gallons of coffee and iced tea. No one is turned away. I saw 4 young kids wheel up on bicycles and although barely tall enough to reach the window, they each got a plate and sat down to eat. Where they came from and where they went, no one knew.


The video crew returns from shooting aerial footage of the island from the helicopter. They tell me that the devastation seen from the air is unbelievable, especially in the West End of Galveston past the sea wall. On the Bolivar Peninsula northeast of Galveston, they say there is nothing left, except bloated cows in the water and skinny cows roaming the island in search of water. Million dollar homes have disappeared, except one, which sits intact in the middle of the marsh.


Meanwhile, on Galveston Island, Isakson and Plummer are out pushing the crews to clean up as much debris as possible in the remaining 72 hours before Wednesday at 6am. That’s when the city opens the island to its 60,000 residents who are waiting just offshore for the chance to see what Ike has done to their city, their homes, and their way of life. So much debris, so little time. 

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