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Wednesday, September 17

Pundita's Galveston Island Meltdown: They b-b-built houses outside the s-se-seawall? D-do they have f-f-flea poop f-for brains?

(The Christian Science Monitor, September 17) Galveston Island, Texas [...] safely ensconced behind a 10-mile long seawall built after a catastrophic 1900 hurricane, native Galvestonian Andrew Shelton took barely a lick from Ike.

On either side of the seawall, however, a 12-foot storm surge claimed perhaps hundreds of recently built homes with beach access and million-dollar views.

The contrast, says Mr. Shelton, reveals the folly of an exuberant coastal policy that has allowed taxpayer-subsidized market forces to place some of the nation's most valuable real estate on the coast's most unpredictable perches.[...] (1)
It seems only yesterday -- come to think of it, it was only yesterday that I was looking at the suspiciously low death toll in Ike's wake and proposing that Galveston be renamed "Lucky" or "Praise the Lord."

Later in the day I learned that I'm not the only person worried that the toll does not reflect the possibility of several residents washed out to sea. But as one official noted, we may never know.

Damn straight we may never know. Consider: if you had built outside the seawall and sent the hubby to haul lawn furniture out of Ike's winds when -- Whoosh!

No, you would never tell. "He decided to enter a monastery," is what you'd say.

But you know something? That camel's back is not made of iron. Anyone who read an article I posted yesterday knows that this nation came within inches and couple mph of a catastrophe involving a gas pipeline because some fool didn't think to move a ship away from the pipeline before Hurricane Gustav struck.

You can't quarantine every fool each time the hurricane, tornado, and wildfire season starts. There is this thing we call "human error." But because of that, in the off-seasons we must think. And plan. And recognize that this is not 1963.

This is now a nation with 304+ million people, a vast nation faced with many pressing needs for federal tax dollars. We cannot use those dollars to subsidize building booms for Americans who insist on nesting in the jaws of death and yet refuse to take reasonable precautions in their building practices.

It took me 90 seconds to locate internet articles on best practices for building and remodeling in a wildfire and tornado zone. It might take me a couple minutes to locate an article on the hurricane-proof beach house but it doesn't take much to describe it. It's built in the shape of an igloo.

If people say, 'Eeeew, I wouldn't want my beach house to be an igloo; I want a nice Cape Cod' -- then move to Cape Cod. Or sign a waiver for federal disaster insurance. That's if you want to build a box-shaped house on the beach on the Gulf in hurricane alley.

I have seen how those igloos withstand hurricane-force winds on a beach. There's no corners for the wind to grab onto, so they move on to wreck the box structures on either side of the igloo.

I have also seen how fireproofed houses and grounds fare, even though they're plunked next to a forest in California's wildfire alley. There's nothing for the fire to grab onto, so it leaps the house and goes on to consume the non-fireproofed ones around it. The kicker is that the fireproofing is actually a combination of practices that are not expensive.

All such best building practices are rooted in a survivalist outlook that is crucial for Americans to nurture and strengthen during this globalized era, which finds the U.S. worker in competition with billions of very tough people.

So there is more to this situation than economic concerns and protecting tax dollars. If you keep encouraging people to the idea that they don't have to change their behavior in the face of challenges, you weaken them; you weaken their will.

Before I return to the CSM report, Hurricane Ike's rampage in Galveston underscores the need for Americans to think of the aftermath when they say they can ride out a storm. Let's take a cursory look at Ike's aftermath in Galveston:
GALVESTON, Texas (AP - September 16) - The few hundred holdouts on Texas' ravaged Bolivar Peninsula will be required to leave in the next few days, and officials said Tuesday they are ready to use emergency powers to empty the barrier island scraped clean by Hurricane Ike.

Judge Jim Yarbrough, the top elected official in Galveston County, said the roughly 250 people who defied warnings they would be killed if they rode out the storm in the rural coastal community are a "hardy bunch" and there are some "old timers who aren't going to want to leave."

The Texas attorney general's office is looking into the legal options available to force the remaining residents leave, Yarbrough said. Local authorities are prepared to do whatever it takes to get residents to a safer place.

"I don't want to do it," he said. "I'm doing it because it's in their best interests."

The sliver of land is just too damaged for residents to stay there, and the population must be cleared so that recovery can begin, officials said. With no gas, no power and no running water, there is also concern about spread of disease.

Entire neighborhoods on Bolivar Peninsula - home to about 30,000 people during the peak of the summer vacation season - were simply wiped away by the height of Ike's storm surge. In the town of Gilchrist, there are only few buildings still standing. Ferry service to the island is out, as is the bridge on its eastern end. The road that traverses the island is washed out, too.[...] (2)
Again, this is not 1963; the high price of gasoline today means it's very expensive to keep fleets of rescue helicopters in the air for hours on end. All phases of search and rescue operations are now very expensive.

And when thousands decide to ride out a storm while they have the choice to evacuate, this means putting many rescuers at unnecessary risk when the storm's aftermath creates a disaster zone.

I understand the concerns that cause people to ignore an evacuation order, but every one of those concerns can be addressed by cooperative efforts and good planning.

I also understand that there's nothing to prevent another string of very damaging tropical storms and hurricanes from hitting the U.S. this year or next -- while the nation is still trying to absorb the costs from the triple whammy of Fay, Gustav, and Ike -- and even Hannah did damage.

And let's not even talk about the $130 billion federal aid bill from Katrina. And not to mention the federal bills from the last disaster round from wildfires in California, and floods and tornadoes in the midwest.

As I noted, the camel's back is not made of iron. We're getting a small break from falling oil prices, but we are in the midst of an economic downturn. So now is the time to tighten up; to address issues that we shrugged off during the boom time. One of those issues, a big issue, is how we can improve in the area of disaster management.

So, while I don't want to be mean and suggest we re-name Galveston "Locoville," we do need to study the lessons of post-Ike Galveston then act on them, no matter which region of the nation we live in.

All right; here's the rest of the CSM article, which is very instructive; take special note of the part about the electrical substations:
[...] "The irony of this storm is that rich people who built outside the seawall got wiped away and the lower economic classes who trust the seawall survived," says Shelton, whose great-great-grandfather, John Henry Hutchens, survived the 1900 hurricane, which killed more than 6,000 islanders.

As the unprotected West End neighborhoods of Galveston Island remained impassable, and news came that much of Bolivar Peninsula to the east, also unprotected, had borne the brunt of Ike's massive wall of water, questions are being raised about the storm's impact on coastal development.

"I think people are now going to weigh carefully their investments, whether it's in terms of industry, business, and government," says Heber Taylor, editor of the Galveston County Daily News, Texas' oldest continuously published newspaper.

With President Bush visit to the island Tuesday, it's a debate that's likely to focus on Galveston, where storm memories run deep in the island's colorful and multi-cultural heritage, and where recent decades have seen political and market shifts that seem to contradict the hurricane lessons learned, and still practiced, by many natives.

On the other side of the debate is the notion that coastal development is no riskier than building in wildfire-prone California hills or along Tornado Alley in Kansas, with few critics questioning the right of residents there to receive federal insurance and rebuilding aid.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with its $130 billion federal aid package, began shaping that debate in earnest, sparking deep reforms in required construction practices. In some beach towns in and around Galveston Island – including Bolivar, Rollover Pass, Crystal Beach, and Gilchrist – Ike may now define how Texas decides to draw both physical and philosophical lines on beach-building.

Even before the storm, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson proposed that new coastal construction be set back at 60 times the erosion rate – 60 feet for every foot of erosion, for example.

"We now have a graphic example of why you should build as far away from the dunes as possible," Mr. Patterson told the Houston Chronicle during a flyover.

Local officials blasted Patterson's proposal, claiming that communities couldn't survive without new construction. The late '90s real estate boom helped fill tax coffers at a time when local industries were declining – especially in old boom towns like Galveston.

So far, the federal government has largely sided with building boosters. In high-erosion corners of the Gulf like Dauphin Island, Ala., the Army Corps of Engineers has moved sand in order to replace home lots that washed out to sea. Generous infrastructure funds guaranteed by federal law allow the government to underwrite disaster recovery, and also tend to support rebuilding on vulnerable lots.

"It's a very positive sign for sensible management if the State of Texas does take a new look at how we rebuild extremely vulnerable shorelines," says Rob Young, director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.

"But I'm also skeptical, because the people who are being shut out of rebuilding tend to be wealthy and politically influential. People say, 'Those people must be nuts to build on the West End of Galveston,' but it's actually the taxpayers who are nuts for subsidizing that development."

Alphonso Nickerson, who rode out Ike with his mother behind the seawall, says wealthier residents will certainly rebuild. "If you don't have to worry about money, it's no big thing," he says.

But Carlos Silliman, a laid-back outdoorsman, says city government has abandoned the lessons of the last half-dozen storms. He thinks the city should stop building infrastructure to the unprotected areas and pay more attention to storm-proofing the city's five electrical substations, all of which fizzled out. [...] (1)
1) After Ike, to rebuild or not? Coastal Texas now faces the classic question asked in the wake of other natural disasters; The Christian Science Monitor; Patrik Jonsson, staff writer

2) Officials pledge to empty Ike-battered peninsula; Associated Press; by Juan A. Lozano; Associated Press Writers Andre Coe, Chris Duncan, Monica Rhor, April Castro and Deb Riechmann in Houston, Pauline Arrillaga in San Antonio, Allen G. Breed on Bolivar Peninsula, Jay Root in Austin, and Christopher Sherman and Jon Gambrell in Galveston, contributed to this report.
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