Hurricane Ike crashed into Texas on a September Saturday, leaving behind devastation and disbelief. Those at the Galveston County Criminal District Attorney’s Office tell their stories about preparing for the storm and dealing with its aftermath.
For many of the 300,000 people living and working in Galveston County, the upcoming months will be a time to rebuild and reflect on the devastation caused by Hurricane Ike, which ravaged the island on Saturday, September 13. Many of us are grateful that we survived the Category Two hurricane that caused a reported 25-foot storm surge and changed the landscape of Galveston. “It will affect the people of this island for many years,” says Assistant Criminal District Attorney Larry Drosnes. “Some will leave and not come back, some will not have work, and some will reassess where and how they live.”
Calm before the storm
On September 11, while the rest of the country was commemorating the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington D.C., the people of Galveston began to prepare for Hurricane Ike. The storm was predicted to make landfall on Saturday, September 13. The staff at the district attorney’s office began covering computers with trash bags, unplugging phones, and moving equipment and furniture away from the windows, a routine performed just a month earlier in preparation for Hurricane Gustav.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Lindsay Lopez had moved to Galveston from Alaska less than a year ago. She thought nothing more than rain would come of Ike. “Just like Gustav, we thought we’d get a day off—it wouldn’t be anything special,” Lopez says. “People were joking about it being no big deal because it was only a Category Two.” On September 12, Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas issued mandatory evacuation orders for the people of Galveston Island. “When I heard the mandatory evacuation, I thought it meant everyone, so I left right away,” Lopez added.
Larry Drosnes ignored the evacuation order (like so many thousands of others) and rode out the storm in his West End home. He had weathered numerous hurricanes having lived 61 years in Galveston. “I’ve been through stronger storms,” Drosnes says, referring to Hurricane Alicia that pounded Galveston in 1983. “Although I listened to the reports, I discounted them. That was a mistake, one I’ll not make again.”
Criminal District Attorney Kurt Sistrunk had been through numerous hurricanes during his 20 years in the city. Sistrunk stayed at his home on Galveston Island while his wife and two children evacuated to San Antonio. It was important to be available to offer guidance to police and other law enforcement officials after the storm, Sistrunk says of his decision to not evacuate: “Crime doesn’t take a holiday just because a hurricane is coming.” Sistrunk had spent the afternoon boarding up his house when he received a phone call from Drosnes about the rising water. Both men decided to evacuate to the sheriff’s office. On the drive there, they could see the power of the approaching storm. Waves were being thrown against the seawall like “Old Faithful geysers, going 40 to 50 feet in the air,” Sistrunk says. The seawall is an 18-foot structure built after the Great Storm of 1900, which killed over 6,000 people, to protect the island from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. “It was painfully obvious that we were in store for something devastating,” Sistrunk says. “It was shocking.”
Victims advocate Rachel Leal waited until the day before Ike’s arrival to evacuate. She was born on Galveston Island and remembers how the seawall protected her home from Hurricane Alicia, but she became worried when she saw the waves going over the seawall and covering the street. “I was in total awe of the water,” Leal says. “It was unbelievable how fast it was rising.” She and her family evacuated to her daughter’s house in northwest Houston after seeing the rising flood waters.
The fury of Ike
As Ike approached the Galveston-Houston area, the wind and rain began knocking down trees and power lines.
The home where Leal was staying with her family lost power late Friday night. She and her family decided to flee farther north to College Station because she was afraid that the wind would knock the dozen or so trees on the property into the home. “We got scared and panicked,” Leal says of her decision to get on the road despite warnings from Houston’s mayor to “hunker down.” Leal drove toward College Station in total darkness. “The wind was blowing. The lights were out. There were two or three people out on the road,” she says. She could feel the wind tossing her car from side to side. “My husband’s knuckles were white from holding onto the steering wheel so tight.”
On Galveston Island, Larry Drosnes was taking shelter at the sheriff’s office. The power went out late Friday night for most of Galveston Island. Drosnes says he could see the swaying of the trees and hear the wind.
The wind woke Sistrunk up from his sleep at the sheriff’s office. He and 10 other people slept in one room on prisoners’ cots. “I woke up to the noise and everyone checking out the water level,” Sistrunk says. He could see that they were surrounded by water despite the total darkness outside. “It looked like a lake. Think about a castle surrounded by a moat. We were the island surrounded by water. You could hear waves lapping in the distance and metal flapping and hitting something.”
Lopez was sleeping at her sister-in-law’s house in Houston when she was awoken late Friday night. Her sister-in-law had warned her to get away from the windows and to move into the hallway because of the wind. Lopez remembers looking out and seeing the buckling windows and trees. “The windows were like a bag in the wind. I could see them go in and out,” Lopez says. “I remember the trees bending to the point of breaking.”
Things we lost during the storm
The morning after the storm, people were shocked at the damage. “It was like a bomb had gone off,” Leal says. Whole houses and been picked up and moved, and debris was everywhere.
Leal lost her parents two months before the storm. However, she’s grateful to have survived. “You lose your parents, your mom and dad, and a storm comes and washes everything away—but you’re still alive,” Leal says of the damage caused to her parents’ house. “I freaked out when I saw the trees down in the yard, but when I ran up to my house and opened the door, I started screaming,” Leal says. “I screamed because nothing had happened to my house. I was so grateful.” The storm had flooded her garage and destroyed her cars. She is in the process of cleaning the debris from her home.
The people who had evacuated Galveston Island had to wait two weeks before authorities let them back onto the island to view their property. “The worse part is not knowing,” Lopez says about not being allowed to return home. “I couldn’t control the situation.” She started to cry when she first saw pictures of Galveston Island. “We were still hopeful, but we were sure we lost everything,” she says. “When we saw the pictures, we knew we lost everything. We thought about our stuff, the clothes on the floor.”
Drosnes says the damage on the island caused by the storm was incredible. “There was complete devastation the likes I’ve never seen in the 61 years I’ve been in Galveston,” he says. “There were boats on the street. Buildings were completely gone. Houses where there was nothing but a slab. There was debris and destruction everywhere.” Drosnes lost the bottom half of his home but is grateful to have lived through the storm. “Once we survived the surge, everything else is insignificant,” he says. “As a result of the storm, I recognize how short life is and how some of the things we worry about during our lives are insignificant.” Drosnes plans to rebuild his home.
On his return to check on his home, Sistrunk could see Blackhawk helicopters circling the island. “This is what it’s like when you’re in the zone of destruction,” Sistrunk says. “You couldn’t drive one block down Seawall Boulevard because there was so much debris” from downed billboards to uprooted light poles. “There were rocks and boulders everywhere.” He returned home expecting to see a water line that reached almost to the roof of the house. “When I took the boards off, I was shocked and elated when I didn’t see the water and didn’t smell anything inside,” he says. “The fact that it hadn’t flooded was truly a miracle.” It was important to him to restore the house to the way his children remembered it before the storm.
In Houston, Lopez saw the damage downtown caused by the storm. “That was a scene,” she says. “The streetlights were hanging by one spare wire. Power lines were on the street. It’s a pretty amazing sight. It made you feel even worse because Galveston was five times worse.” Lopez lost everything in her first-floor apartment. When she returned home, books were littered on the floor and mold was growing on her clothes; “our shoes had actually split and mold was growing on them.” She says it’s hard to imagine how quickly she lost everything. “When you don’t see your stuff disappear, you keep remembering about the last time you saw it,” she says. Lopez relocated to Webster, a town 20 miles from Galveston Island, with her husband.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Brian Carter fled with his fiancée to San Antonio during the storm. When he returned, he found his house completely destroyed by the storm. Everything in his house had molded over, including his beloved Aggie Corps of Cadet boots. He and his fiancée spent days sorting through the items in their home. “I wish the storm had washed away the whole house instead of just damaging and leaving things sitting there ruined,” Carter says. He says the storm forced him to purge the place and go “through each individual memory.” He is currently living with a coworker and will return to the island next month.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Susan Martin says her dream was always to own a home on the water. She had evacuated from hurricanes in Florida but never had any hurricane caused damage in her 15 years living there. Two days after evacuating from her home in Bacliff, Martin returned to a home covered in a concrete-like mud. Her first reaction was to “abandon ship and sell the place,” but her husband convinced her to see the devastation not as a catastrophe but an adventure. Her neighbors helped Martin put up her fence so they could pen in their dogs, and her family “spent hours in the heat picking up thousand of rocks from our yard and returning them to the bulkhead.” She is still in the process of rebuilding.
Assistant Criminal District Attorney Benton Sullivant evacuated from his home on the East End for two weeks after the storm. When he returned, he found a house destroyed by a foot of floodwater. Outside, blocking his driveway was a large boat and a golf cart. He got a bronchial infection from breathing the air during the extraction work, and his brother, who had come to help him, got food poisoning from eating the food on the island. As of press time, he still does not have gas, hot water, or electricity. He is in the process of rebuilding his home.
Legal secretary Kim Williams was born on Galveston Island and has lived there for over 41 years. The storm destroyed her home. “I lost everything. A lot of my memories are gone. My home is gone; everything is destroyed,” Williams says. She compares the devastation caused by the storm to a divorce. “You’ve been with someone a long time and then dramatically you’re forced to separate and you’ll never get what’s gone. You lose your friends and your life as you knew it.”
However, like many long-time residents of Galveston, Williams is confident life in Galveston will get back to the way it was. “I’m optimistic that everything will come back to normal. We’ll be productive again. The children will come back and regain the family life they had.” Williams currently lives in Texas City. She does not intend to return to the island.
Leal says that the storm has reminded her about the important things in life. “It’s taught me to be more humble, more appreciative,” she says. “I’m more grateful for everything I have in life: running water, lights, power.” For the first time in many years, she is getting to know her neighbors.
Martin was reminded of all her family and friends who called and emailed to check on her. “I will remember the bonds I developed with my neighbors when we really talked for the first time in three years because we weren’t distracted by cable TV or other activities,” she says. “I will remember all the volunteers, police, and military personnel who took time away from their lives to give us ice and water and meals.”
Sistrunk was reminded that “the force of mother nature can be overwhelming.” He is grateful that he, his family, and the staff of the DA’s office survived the storm. His thoughts and prayers remain with those affected by Hurricane Ike. “We were very fortunate considering the untold numbers that lost their homes and loved ones. I hope that it is a once-in-a-lifetime storm for everyone that suffered a loss.”
The attorneys and staff at the district attorney’s office were assigned to various locations in Galveston County for two weeks after the storm. They have returned to their offices at the courthouse, which were undamaged by the storm.
If you’d like to help the people of Galveston County who were affected by Hurricane Ike, please contact the Galveston County Office of Emergency Management at: 281/309-5002. ✤
Editor’s note: Author Thuy Le had moved to her new home on Galveston Island six days before the storm hit. She is living with her parents in Houston while she is waiting for electricity to be restored to her house. She can be contacted at thuy.le@ co.galveston.tx.us.