Tom McDonald discusses the catastrophic storm that struck the coast of Texas and the lessons learned by fire-rescue personnel. Around 2 A.M. on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, the eye of Hurricane Ike passed over the eastern tip of the island of Galveston, TX. The city of the same name, which takes up...
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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that Ike's monetary damage could rival that of some "legendary" hurricanes. In downtown Houston, hundreds of windows were blown out on high-rise buildings, the most noticeable being on the 75-story Morgan-Chase Tower, the city's tallest building, where a third of the windows on one side were gone.
In Galveston, devastation was everywhere. Of about a dozen structures that were built on pilings directly over the beach along the seawall, only one remained, the Flagship Hotel. The only problem for the hotel, though, was that its driveway, the only way in and out of its parking lot, had collapsed in the storm. The hotel was literally an island.
On Sunday morning, area residents awoke to find more water in the streets. Much of northwest Houston was flooded and White Oak Bayou was out of its banks. It was not from the hurricane, though. It was from heavy rains triggered by a passing cold front. Once the streets drained a second time, the weather in Houston turned pleasant for a week.
Houston police and other area law enforcement officers were dispatched to maintain order at the few gas stations that opened on Sunday. Before they were in place, numerous fights and even a murder occurred as irate customers jockeyed for position at the pumps. Houston Mayor Bill White ordered a curfew from 9 P.M. to 6 A.M. for the entire city of 2 million people for more than a week after the hurricane.
The Houston Ship Channel is a 50-mile-long waterway that begins a few miles east of downtown and ends where Galveston Bay opens into the Gulf of Mexico. Many of the country's largest petrochemical refineries are located along that "Fabulous Fifty Miles." In fact, the channel was built as a direct result of the 1900 hurricane. The port of Galveston was the state's busiest back then, but the hurricane destroyed it. Area leaders decided that a new port would be better located inland. Federal dollars were used to dredge Houston's Buffalo Bayou and, by 1914, the new ship channel was in operation in Houston. By design, then, Ike did relatively little damage to the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel.
Damage East of Houston
As heavily damaged as Galveston and parts of Houston were, there was also extensive damage to hundreds of smaller communities in the region. Pasadena and Baytown, heavy industrial cities east of Houston, were both hard hit by Ike. East of them, in the "Golden Triangle" formed by the cities of Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur, near the Louisiana state line, damage was also massive.
The worst effects of storm surge are usually felt to the east of the eye of a storm that makes landfall on the Gulf coast. That held true in most of that "Triangle," especially in Orange and downtown Beaumont, but most especially in the small town of Bridge City, where virtually the entire town was flooded chest high.
Along the coast east of where the eye passed, the Bolivar Peninsula is a narrow, sandy stretch of land. Protected from hurricanes by nothing more than sand dunes, the peninsula has long been a popular beach retreat. Hundreds of beach houses, most built on pilings, line the village streets of Port Bolivar, Crystal Beach and Gilchrist. Today, all three villages are almost wiped clean.
As of this writing, Ike's official death toll in Texas stood at 35; but, ominously, more than 300 people were still listed as missing, the vast majority of whom were Galveston residents. Therefore, it is expected that the storm's final death toll will rise significantly. Following the storm, a tired and dejected Thomas was quoted as saying that her beloved city was in a "downward spiral," not fit for people to live in. Given Galveston's rich history and the indomitable spirit of its residents, that situation will likely be only temporary.
Fire officials in jurisdictions along the U.S. coastline from Mexico to Maine should learn as much as they can about hurricanes which have impacted the U.S. in recent years. Fire chiefs should dispatch their top planning officers to cities that have experienced major storms to learn about what went as expected and what did not.