On September 12-13, Hurricane Ike and its related storm surge hit the Texas port city of Galveston like a hammer, wrecking homes and businesses, downing trees and power lines, and sinking the city's historic downtown under ten feet of water. The majority of residents were evacuated before the storm made landfall, and were kept out of the city for ten days as rescue workers and other emergency personnel sought to restore essential infrastructure.
The Port of Galveston, a major cargo hub and one of the Gulf Coast's primary cruise ports, sustained substantial and widespread damage. Initial assessments revealed heavy water damage to port equipment, buildings, and piers. According to an official statement, Cruise Terminal No. 1 suffered relatively minor damage and is already undergoing repairs. Cruise Terminal No. 2 was more heavily affected, and isn't expected to reopen until December.
"We may have taken a direct hit but we aren't down for the count," said Port Director Steve M. Cernak. "We are picking ourselves up and moving on and will be ready to handle our first cargo vessel this week, and our first cruise vessel in early October."
Located some 50 miles south of Houston, Galveston sits on a 30-mile barrier island that averages only 2 miles wide. Ships departing from here can reach the open sea in about 30 minutes, compared to several hours of lag time from the Port of Houston.
At the end of the 19th century, Galveston was the largest city in Texas and the third-busiest port in the country. But then, on September 8, 1900, a massive storm came ashore, carrying with it 140-mph winds and a 20-foot surge that washed completely over the island. Houses were smashed into matchwood, and more than 6,000 islanders -- a sixth of the island's population -- were drowned. Those who remained went to work to prevent a recurrence of the disaster, raising the city's ground level by up to 17 feet and erecting a massive seawall along 10 miles of shoreline, with several jetties of large granite blocks projecting out into the water. Though the seawall failed to completely stem Hurricane Ike, it definitely prevented an even worse disaster. Reportedly, 80 percent of the island's buildings are still standing, though waterlogged.
Carnival Cruise Lines (www.carnival.com), the main cruise line operating from Galveston, has repositioned its two Galveston-based ships, Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy, to the Port of Houston's Bayport Cruise Terminal. Both vessels will operate their regular Western Caribbean cruises from the port until repairs to Galveston's cruise port are complete.
"The Port of Galveston has been a valued and important partner since we launched year-round cruising from there in 2000," said Carnival president and CEO Gerry Cahill. "We look forward to bringing both the Carnival Conquest and Carnival Ecstasy back to the city as quickly as we can. We have enjoyed an outstanding relationship with Galveston over the years and our thoughts and prayers are with the people of this wonderful city during this difficult time."
A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean, which has scheduled its Voyager of the Seas to begin 7-night Western Caribbean cruises from Galveston December 14, told Frommer's that, at this time, the line still intends to operate those cruises from Galveston as planned.
Damage Reports from Galveston's Historic District
For cruise passengers, Galveston's main attractions have been its Strand National Historic Landmark District, with its Victorian commercial buildings and houses; the old silk-stocking East End Historic Landmark District with its many restored homes; and its Seawall and historic piers, bars, and restaurants. Four days after the storm subsided, preservationists from the Galveston Historical Foundation (www.galvestonhistory.org) were allowed back onto the island to begin assessing damage to the city's treasures. The following is based primarily on their reports.
Close to ten feet of water and mud flooded the Strand, while about five to six feet poured into the East End. Near the cruise dock, at Pier 21, the Texas Seaport Museum (www.tsm-elissa.org) building survived intact, as did its centerpiece, the three-masted, iron-hulled sailing ship Elissa, built in 1877. The vessel rode out the storm at her pier, sustaining little damage beyond the loss of several sails. The museum's workshops, which handle maintenance work for Elissa, were destroyed.
The 1861 Custom House, which now serves as the Historical Foundation's headquarters, was flooded by about eight feet of water, causing extensive operational damage though no major reported structural damage.
The historic 1859 Ashton Villa, the first of Galveston's great Broadway mansions, is, according to the foundation, "in grave danger of damage from mildew and mold." Some 30 inches of water and mud flooded its ornate first floor, and timely action is required to save the villa's collection of antique furniture and artwork, much of it original to the house.
Damage was less extensive at Broadway's 1886-1892 Gresham House, one of the island's most visited historic properties, and at the wooden 1859 St. Joseph's church, the state's oldest German Catholic Church, whose wooden steeple also rode out the 1900 storm, albeit suffering damage. The two oldest residences on the island, the 1838 Menard Home and the 1839 Samuel May Williams Home escaped damage completely. The 1921 National Bank building, home of the Galveston County Historical Museum, suffered some water damage in its basement, but its exhibits were essentially unharmed.
The island's beaches, which offer off-white sand and warm waters much of the year, reportedly survived with minimal damage. However, the pleasure piers along the beachfront were all destroyed, including one that held the famous 1940s-era Balinese Room (www.balineseroom.net), a bar, performance venue, and onetime gambling hall that in its heyday saw performers like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, and Duke Ellington.
The Galveston Historical Foundation is accepting online donations to help in its preservation and restoration efforts at http://ghf.destinationnext.com/donation.aspx.