Five weeks after Hurricane Ike brought Galveston Island to its knees, the tourism sector there is in full recovery mode.
Although Ike’s destructive 12-foot storm surge erased large swaths of beach on the island’s west end, pulled homes from their pilings and flooded the first floors of elegant Victorian mansions in the historical downtown district, progress is evident as hotels reopen, events are confirmed or rescheduled and attractions welcome visitors.
It’s a different story for the residential areas, where the remains of houses and debris are scattered across the landscape. Several hundred people remain in shelters on the island, and another 1,000 are in shelters in San Antonio and Austin because their homes were destroyed.
Galveston is struggling with its greatest natural disaster since the hurricanes of 1900 and 1915.
“We tell our visitors that they will see a different Galveston now,” said RoShelle Gaskins, spokesperson for the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When they call and ask if they should visit now, we say yes, with the caveat that much of the island is still in cleanup mode. We tell them that Galveston doesn’t look the same as it once did.”
Crews are working overtime at the Port of Galveston to repair damage to the cruise ship terminals, according to Steve Cernak, the port director. Already, $5 million has been spent for cleanup operations that included the removal of more than two feet of silt that collected around the cruise ship berths.
Officials are hopeful that Carnival’s Ecstasy and Conquest, which are temporarily operating out of the Port of Houston’s Bayport Cruise Terminal, can return to Galveston some time in November.
Galveston’s beaches reopened to surfers, strollers and sunbathers on Oct. 13. The most popular beach spots along the 10-mile-long seawall are largely intact, but Galveston officials have asked Congress for $100 million to bring the beaches back to life.
“Without beach restoration and erosion protection, our economy will suffer greatly,” said Steve LeBlanc, Galveston city manager. “Our beaches annually draw throngs of out-of-towners who spend millions on food, rental housing, hotel accommodations and shopping.”
The Galveston Historical Foundation worked quickly to assess damages at its historical properties. Mold experts were brought in to help salvage antique furniture, artworks, maps and photography.
“This is not going to be a quick fix,” said Tom Schwenk, the foundation’s president. “We have a lot of work to do.”
The Bishop’s Palace, the city’s most visited historical property, was due to reopen on Oct. 23; the 1838 Menard Home and the 1839 Samuel May Williams Home received minor damage and are close to reopening; and the 1984 Grand Opera House will kick off its postponed season on Jan. 3.
Moody Gardens’ attractions, including the Aquarium Pyramid, the Discovery Pyramid, the Colonel Paddlewheeler boat and the Ride Film Theater are open to visitors.
The Beach Boys will perform at an outdoor concert on Nov. 1 at Moody Gardens, with a portion of the proceeds going to the recovery efforts. Special packages with room and tickets are offered by the Moody Gardens Hotel.
The island’s only public golf course sustained minor damage and will be back in the swing of things by the end of the month, according to Bill Pushak, general manager. The driving range is back in operation.
“The reopening will give regular golfers and tourists another reason to start returning to Galveston,” he said.
The Galveston Island Convention Center at the San Luis Resort already has hosted a wedding and a conference and is rescheduling events and booking new ones. The Lone Star Motorcycle Rally, originally set for this month, will now take place Dec. 11 to 14 and is expected to attract thousands of bikers, particularly from Houston.
The destination’s long-time Dickens on the Strand holiday event, always held on the first weekend of December, is still on schedule for Dec. 6 and 7.
“We’ve gotten many calls about that, especially regarding hotel availability,” Gaskins said. “We tell them we have room.”
Many of Galveston’s 5,000 hotel rooms are open for business, but availability has been limited to disaster relief teams, FEMA representatives, insurance adjustors, building contractors and residents who lost their homes. However, many hotels are now taking guest reservations for Nov. 1 and beyond.
Although the Tremont House hotel sustained flood damage and will not open until early 2009, the historical Hotel Galvez, built in 1911, is now taking guest reservations.
The Lone Star Flight Museum moved 10 historical aircraft out of harm’s way as a precaution before Ike hit. The museum sustained substantial damage, but hopes to reopen by Christmas.
Items at the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame that were damaged by flood waters are being cleaned and repaired by NASA technicians. Opening date is late December.