Five years after Hurricane Ike, recovery in Galveston has been inconsistent.
The city has a long way to go in rebuilding its infrastructure. The University of Texas Medical Branch, meanwhile, is close to being done. That’s ironic, given that the medical branch seemed close to extinction after the storm. But, instead of dying, the medical branch is virtually rebuilt. It’s coming back better and stronger.
A lot of the city’s energy has been consumed in a fight over how to replace public housing units destroyed by the storm. Five years out, not a single public housing unit has been rebuilt, and infrastructure projects have been delayed.
You can see progress, but it’s uneven. Galveston’s tax base has recovered. Its population has not.
There are similar puzzles on the Bolivar Peninsula. A new sewer system is just now being built. That move, aided by federal dollars, will encourage development. But many properties that were wrecked by the storm were bought out, with federal dollars, on condition that they would be used only for green space. It’s a mixed message, with the federal government helping to rebuild of areas next door to lots that were too risky to be habitable.
In Galveston, there’s a sense of missed opportunities. After the storm, there was real hope that the city could be rebuilt in better, smarter way.
In the early days, a recovery committee of 300 people convened to re-imagine the city and to set goals. There were something like 80 goals, reflecting the varied interests in the community.
In cases where the goals were championed by strong leaders, progress has been made. Texas A&M Professor Bill Merrell has championed the Ike Dike, a massive structure to protect the bay from storms. Former City Councilwoman Jackie Cole has championed a plan to replant trees. Galveston College President Myles Shelton and college regents championed a vocational training center. Karla Klay of the Artist Boat championed an effort to acquire natural areas on the West End. But for every effort that has succeeded, two have been forgotten or abandoned.
When that vast committee was formed, it was assumed that the city’s leaders — especially those on the city council — would help focus the list of 80 goals and perhaps get to a consensus on the most important — those that the whole city could stand behind.
Instead, the city bogged down into the quagmire of that long quarrel over public housing.
What would help, going forward, is to try to regain that focus — to try to find the five goals, rather than 50, that the vast majority of islanders could get behind.
What would they be?
Here are a few suggestions:
• Build on the gains made by the Galveston school district. Get behind the system to make it exemplary. If the schools are excellent — and are recognized as being excellent — the lagging population might magically recover.
• Build on real economic opportunities by opening Pelican Island to development. That, of course, means new bridges.
• Build a business climate that lobbies constantly to make the island affordable to families and to businesses. That means controlling costs for insurance and taxes.
• Build a system that makes is easier to redevelop stressed and blighted properties. That presumes that the city can find a way to get those properties out of the hands of the old owners and into the hands of new.
• Build a system that protects the bay from storms.
There are more worthy goals, many more. But what’s needed, five years out, is not more challenges or new challenges, but some consensus on what Galveston most needs to be whole again.
• Heber Taylor