Saturday, September 13, 2008

In Galveston, the Feel of a Haunted House

....An apartment complex was damaged as Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast Saturday in Galveston....

Published: September 13, 2008
GALVESTON, Tex. —The eye of Hurricane Ike arrived here at 2:10 a.m. A deafening howl suddenly disappeared and an eerie silence greeted the curious few who ventured out onto the streets.

With winds raging at more than 110 miles per hour hammering this barrier island most of Friday night and into Saturday delivering storm surges topping 15 feet, the Gulf waters came all the way up to and through the bottom floors of the restaurants and hotels that used to sit several hundred feet from the water’s edge.

But for an hour or so — as the winds and rains suddenly stopped — the city took on the feel of a haunted house. The island was covered mostly in darkness as more than 1.4 million homes in the region were without power. The only lights to be seen came from the strobes of several building’s fire alarms. Some sections of the east end of the island glowed orange from house fires. At the cemetery, grave statues of saints and white tombstones barely stuck their heads above muddy waters.

The crashing waves and the echoes of car alarms were the only sounds. A thick smell of leaking gas permeated some blocks.

One man walking along 40th street appeared from the thick fog. Declining to give his name because the police had imposed a dusk to dawn curfew, he observed that an odd mix of peace and danger seemed to loom over the island.

Around 5 a.m., emergency officials said that everything remained uncertain. They did not know how many of the estimated 20,000 people (out of a population of 57,000) who decided to ride out the storm on the island would need to be rescued. The staff at the local emergency room was not answering the telephone, police officials said, so, it was not clear how the hospital staff was fairing.

One of the island’s largest employers, the University of Texas Medical Branch, was hemmed in by danger on all sides, according to the police officials. A fire at a nearby boatyard had risked spreading to the hospital. That fire seemed to be extinguished, they said. But now the hospital was taking on large amounts of water.

Fifty people had been evacuated from around the island throughout the night, emergency officials said. About 260 people were sheltering at Ball High School.

Out on the streets, things were bizarrely askew in that way that only big storms can accomplish. A boat sat in the middle of a road near 49th Street, even though there was no sign of water on the street. On 53rd Street, four frogs gathered on a small island in the middle of a flooded section of the road. White egrets walked along the sidewalk, as if confused.

Further inland, the waters seemed to have taken on a life of their own. A block submerged one moment became a 6-foot river the next. What few people ventured out during the hour of calm found the city like a treacherous maze because passable roads disappeared unpredictably.

“It took me 10 minutes to walk like 20 blocks from here,” said Steve Sherrod, having gone out to look around only to find himself cut off from the house where he was staying. “It took me 40 minutes to get back here because my path disappeared.”

Staring at a block flooded by fast moving waters, he added, “I still can’t figure out how to get back to my place.”

The stillness brought with it a disconcerting feeling. Perhaps it was the knowledge that in a matter of minutes the second beating would commence.

One man walking down 51st Street gave a nod as he hurried past. “You’d better hurry up,” he said, as if to imply that the monster was on its way back.

And indeed it was.

As the eye of the storm passed and the back side of the hurricane dragged heavily onto shore around 4 a.m., it brought even more water because it came with high tide.

“Looks like Ike is about to enforce the curfew,” one police officer joked as a reporter scurried inside for cover at the last minute.

Quickly, the storm picked up again, and the rain began pounding furiously. Every so often there was the nerve-wracking sound of sheet metal being ripped from nearby rooftops. And as the moaning sound from the wind began anew, many people waited alone in dark rooms before trying to go back to sleep.