Back from the Storm
Following Ike, the forces of nature couldn’t overcome the forces of motivated volunteers
By Dan Oko
With the olive waters of Galveston Bay beckoning and the soothing splash of a kayak paddle in the distance, it’s easy to forget the devastation that was wreaked on Galveston Island State Park by Hurricane Ike. Long-billed curlews probe the shallows for a meal, white ibis loaf in hardy trees by the gravel road that cuts down the north side of the park, and young men dressed in jeans and armed with fishing rods make their way to cast the briny cuts by Dana Cove in search of drum, flounder and sea trout. A cool breeze stirs the marsh grasses, and then the indelible whine of mosquitoes begins to swell. If you’re unprepared, you may soon find yourself in retreat. But for Texans, including thousands of Houston-area urbanites, the fact that the park remains open to visitors is a blessing — no disguise.
Shirley Foster knows this. In the fall of 2008, with Hurricane Ike sweeping violently across the Gulf of Mexico, Foster was forced to leave her Galveston Island home. The president of the Friends of Galveston Island State Park (FoGISP), a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of one of the most popular parks in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inventory, Foster joined the parade of sensible islanders headed inland to escape the approaching storm. She left behind not only most of her worldly possessions, but also 2,000 acres of beloved beachfront and mixed prairie that she and others have celebrated since the park first opened to the public in 1975.
One of the worst storms in U.S. history, and the most expensive hurricane ever to reach the Texas coast, Ike had an impact that was virtually unprecedented. So when Foster returned to Galveston and saw how the gale had battered not only her hometown but the swath of nature she had promised to protect when she joined the FoGISP board, she was aghast. Park buildings had been flooded, trees and shrubs had been uprooted or killed by salt water, and debris ranging from surfboards to kitchen cabinets filled ponds and fields.
“It was a mess,” says Foster. “They found everything from hot tubs and personal watercraft to plastic bags.” Adding insult to injury, rumors started swirling that the park, which will cost tens of millions to fully rebuild but which also enjoys visitation rivaled only by Garner State Park in the Hill Country, could be padlocked for seven years.
Although TPWD brass quickly reassured park supporters that the state planned to do everything in its power to keep the park open, the scenario worried Foster. “We started hearing that they might close the park,” she recalls, “and let me tell you, that did not suit us at all.”
Today, that save-the-park rallying cry offers a stellar example of how the public can work with officials to care for the land they love. At Galveston Island State Park, a mere six months after Ike, predictions for the future turned from cloudy to sunny.
Recognizing the need to lend a hand during treacherous economic times, people who had grown up visiting the park began showing up with shovels and garbage bags to pick up trash. Dunes were replanted with fresh grasses to help stabilize the shifting sands. With volunteer help, buildings were taken down to the studs, removed or reconstructed. Damaged restrooms were demolished. Broken pavement was carried away by the Texas Department of Transportation.
What started as a citizen effort drew the attention of state legislators, and Galveston Rep. Craig Eiland worked with his colleagues in Austin to find $12,000,000 to help pay for reconstruction.
The painstaking work was accomplished by not only FoGISP but also by the nonprofit Galveston Bay Foundation, not to mention school groups, Boy Scout troops and college students who traveled from as far away as Doane College in Nebraska (this last bunch led by a biology teacher with connections to Texas).
By March 2009, the bay-side nature center had been resuscitated and re-envisioned as an all-purpose visitors center — shortly thereafter, the park installed a small windmill to provide renewable, green energy — and the park began to welcome guests again. Anglers, kayakers and birders began returning in droves. Roads and parking pads were cleared and access to the beach reclaimed.
By June, the gulf side’s tent and RV campsites were ready to reopen. “Not just at Galveston, but at all the parks in our region, staff and volunteer efforts really moved us forward faster than expected,” says Justin Rhodes, the southeast regional parks director at TPWD.
Foster is quick to share the credit. “Our group has a membership of 122, and we could not do it ourselves,” she says. “We had tremendous help from other organizations.” Foster notes that FoGISP found its earliest ally in the Galveston Bay Foundation, a regional nonprofit conservation group that encourages eco-tourism. Indeed, in the immediate wake of Ike, it was the foundation that stepped up to initiate the first cleanup.
According to foundation director Bob Stokes, the move was a no-brainer. Given the storm, the group’s annual autumn Bike Around the Bay fundraiser, a two-day, 150-mile bike ride, had been blown off course. Faced with impassable roads on nearby Bolivar Peninsula and a temporary cessation of ferry service from the island, Stokes and his group decided instead to turn their attention to the mess left behind by the hurricane. In short order, 200 would-be riders tackled trash at the park, spending an average of six to eight hours a day over the course of the planned ride weekend, collecting mountains of garbage such as gas cans and timber from ruined homes.
“I call Galveston Island State Park the crown jewel of all the public access to the bay,” explains Stokes. “There are lots of areas that still need attention, but keeping the park open was a real priority for us.”
At the end of August, State Parks Director Walt Dabney, Rhodes and park Superintendent Hans Haglund took a tour of what the various volunteers had accomplished. Beneath sunny skies, they covered several miles on mountain bikes, stopping to evaluate the poor state of the aging Mary Moody amphitheater, one of many sites still in need of attention after the park reopening.
Dabney wondered aloud what might be done with the derelict buildings — and currently the state is negotiating to have the leased property along FM 3005 returned to the agency so that cleanup can be completed — but otherwise admired what FoGISP and others had managed to accomplish. Though there were still household goods and watercraft awaiting a hauling truck in a few backcountry spots, the volunteer cleanup had provided the impetus to pick up decades’ worth of waste.
“I cannot believe the difference,” said Dabney, who also visited immediately after the storm struck. “It’s cleaner now than it was before Ike.”
According to Moellendorf, morphological features may mean little in identifying tarantula species, and several species actually may be members of the same species with varied morphology.
The bicycle tour focused mostly on the bay side, where, despite the heat, an array of RVs and tents occupied many of the camp spots. A recently constructed fish-cleaning station awaited electrical connections for lights; the observation tower overlooking Butterowe Bayou appeared to have weathered the storm. Even where piles of broken coolers, water scooter parts and other rubble awaited pickup, it was apparent that the park was well on its way to returning to a fully functional state. With millions of dollars in revenue at stake, the park chief kept his focus on recovery for the park and the future. Considering Dabney’s long résumé, including three decades with the National Park Service before his current 10-year tenure at TPWD, it was all the more significant how impressed he was, not only with the level of destruction caused by Ike, but also with how effective the citizen response had been.
“We could have sat there, you could have sat there, and said, ‘Well, let’s just wait until we can build and get it back,’” Dabney told the crowd. “But you said, ‘No, we’re not going to wait.’”
About 150 park supporters attended, snacking on cheese and fruit, enjoying wine and soft drinks. There were displays showing not only the mess made by Ike and the efforts being made to clean it up, but also educational programs, the park’s successful family fishing clinics and birding walks.
“It’s an amazing partnership we have,” Dabney offered. “Without the friends groups, without the campground hosts, without volunteers, your park system would not work.” Of course, work remains to be done at Galveston Island State Park, at Sea Rim State Park and at other public sites that were damaged by Hurricane Ike. The FoGISP website has a long list of needs that includes the planting of native grasses, the rebuilding of observation platforms, the design and installation of educational signage for visitors and more.
Meanwhile, TPWD is evaluating bids for a new master plan, which Dabney estimates could cost between $30 million and $40 million, and which would depend on approval from the 2011 legislative session. It will be a challenge, he admits, but because the public has already shown its support for the park, he remains optimistic.
“As far as we’re concerned,” he says, “the slate is clean — literally and figuratively. So, if you were going to build a brand new state park, how would you do it right? Because that’s the opportunity we have. And I think it’s going to be great.”
After the August meeting, FoGISP board member Steve Alexander of Bayou Vista took over the president’s seat from Shirley Foster. With the park back in operation, and a blueprint being drawn up for a new and improved park, Alexander looks back on what his group and other groups accomplished with well-deserved pride.
“Everyone on Galveston had the same kind of experience,” he says. “You have to understand that this is something that was years in the making. It’s going to take some time to replace what was there. But I feel very positive about the progress we’ve made.”