50 miles E of Houston
Galveston is a port city on a barrier island opposite the mainland coast from Houston. Its main attractions are the downtown historic district with its Victorian commercial buildings and houses. Parts of the town are beautifully restored and ideal for just strolling around. The beaches are another attraction. They draw crowds of Houstonians and other Texans during the summer. The city is only an hour's drive from Houston and is a good destination for families; it's a quiet town with many points of interest, including Moody Gardens and the tall ship Elissa, and it's not far from NASA and Kemah. Galveston is not a boomtown like Houston. Its population of 60,000 remains fairly stable.
Hurricane Ike & Aftermath -- When Hurricane Ike made landfall on Galveston in the early-morning hours of September 13, 2008, it was a high category-2 storm. This wasn't as large as other dangerous storms to hit the U.S., but two factors made Ike more destructive: First, it packed a bigger storm surge (14 ft.) than most category-2 hurricanes, and, second, it hit the Texas coast in precisely the wrong spot, in effect, outflanking Galveston's sea wall. The center of the storm swept over the eastern tip of the island into Galveston Bay. The communities on Bolivar Peninsula, just to the east of Galveston Island, bore the brunt of the destruction.
Galveston, too, suffered severe damage -- much more so than when Hurricane Alicia (category 3) swept over the western half of the island in 1983. The problem is that Galveston is particularly vulnerable on its inland side. After the great storm of 1900, the land was raised so that it is highest along the sea wall and slopes downward to the bay to allow draining. When Ike's storm surge poured into Galveston Bay, there was nothing to block the water from flowing over the island's unprotected side, pushed by the counterclockwise flow of the hurricane's winds. The majority of the city was flooded, including the Strand, Galveston's popular and historic commercial center, and the East End historic district, with its many renovated houses. About 80% of houses in Galveston were flooded, including the grand mansions, such as the Bishop's Palace and Ashton Villa.
Ike killed 40 people on this coast. Total damages to the island are estimated at over $10 billion, and recovery will be slow. Tourism is the lifeblood of the local economy, so some emphasis will be on getting these businesses up and running. Five months after the hurricane, 60% of stores in the Strand have reopened. Clean-up and repairs have begun on the large attractions, such as the Schlitterbahn water park, in order to have them functioning by the summer, if not spring break. Replenishing the sand on beaches has already begun. Hotels are reopening. The annual Mardi Gras will be held. But basic problems with infrastructure, debris removal, and housing are all lingering. And the parts of the city that gave Galveston its character -- the Strand, the old silk-stocking district, and the rest of the historic East End -- are far from returning to normal. Houses and museums are shuttered, waiting for federal aid, insurance, or some other source of funding. The city has lost some of its businesses and is watching its tax base shrink. The University of Texas Medical Branch, the largest employer, has permanently laid off 3,000 employees and has reduced the number of beds in its teaching hospital. There is talk in the state capital of moving the entire institution to the mainland. If you want to visit Galveston, expect it to be a far cry from what it was, at least until the summer of 2010.