Storm resurgence: Five years after Hurricane Ike, Galveston is a bustling destination for tourists

Posted Sunday, Sep. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If you go Getting there: The closest beach to the Metroplex, Galveston is less than a five-hour drive from most parts of Tarrant County. If you fly, choose flights that land at Houston Hobby, which is only about a 45-minute drive from the island. Tourism info: Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.galveston.com; 409-797-5145. The bureau posts frequent newsy updates, and occasional travel deals, on its Facebook page, facebook.com/Galveston. Of the bureau’s several Twitter accounts, the most active tends to be @Visit_Galveston. A word about parking One change that may not be as welcome to longtime visitors: In July, the city introduced a new paid-parking system along a big stretch of the seawall. Formerly, parking along Seawall Boulevard, which fronts the beach, was free. Under the high-tech system, drivers must either call a toll-free number or visit a website to register their license plate and pay by credit or debit card. There’s no hangtag or sticker, and no cash needed. Parking costs $1 an hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily, or an annual pass can be purchased for $25. The area between 69th and 81st streets remains free. Details: www.paybyphone.com; 866-234-7275.

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When the Ferris wheel stops with our car at the tippy-top, my son and I have a view that seems to stretch for miles.

To one side, there’s the busy seawall, with the beach dotted with tiny multicolored umbrellas and equally tiny sunbathers, a row of hotels, shops and restaurants behind them.

On all other sides? The undulating waves of the Gulf of Mexico, shimmering a hazy blue-green as they disappear into the horizon.

This Ferris wheel perches on the very end of a pier that juts 1,130 feet into the sea; the pier is a feat of engineering that has been part of Galveston’s beachfront for decades. But it was reinvented in 2012 as Pleasure Pier, a $60 million theme-park reboot that recalls a retro, Coney Island-style amusement park — and that demonstrates anew this Texas city’s ability to make lemonade out of lemons.

Five years ago this Friday, this exact spot took a pounding from Hurricane Ike, one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. coast.

Seventeen people died, according to reports compiled by the Texas Department of State Health Services; the Gulf Coast suffered an estimated $25 billion in property damage, much of it in and around Galveston.

The Flagship Hotel, which had formerly stood on the pier that houses Pleasure Pier, was virtually demolished. Much of the city’s tourism infrastructure — including the Schlitterbahn water park, the historic downtown, the Moody Gardens entertainment complex, chunks of the 32-mile beach front, and many hotels and businesses — looked like a disaster zone.

“It was about two weeks after the storm before we were allowed to come back, and my initial reaction was, I think I went into shock, and a lot of us did,” says Galveston businesswoman Joyce Calver McLean, who owned a shoe boutique at the time. “I had to decide, how do I clean this out and what can I salvage and even if I can salvage it, who’s going to buy it? Nobody’s going to be coming to Galveston for a while.”

Yet today, to the unwitting tourist, the most obvious signs of the devastation might be the Hurricane Ike high-water-mark plaques, affixed to historic buildings downtown to commemorate the aftermath of the 17-foot storm surge.

Elsewhere, major tourist attractions have rebuilt with bigger and better features. Downtown has blossomed with new shops and restaurants. Even the beaches seem cleaner and prettier, thanks in part to a $30 million investment in sand and facilities.

In fact, Galveston had a record-breaking peak season in 2012, with tourism numbers well above pre-Ike levels, says Leah Cast, public relations manager for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau. And it’s scooping up national recognition, being named one of the five best Gulf Coast beaches by the Travel Channel this year.

Some of the increase can be attributed to the growth in cruise ship departures. Before Ike, two cruise lines sailed from Galveston’s port. This year, six ships sail from Galveston, including three gleaming Disney vessels.

But much of the credit must be given to Galveston itself — which, in Ike’s aftermath, took a long look at its tourism industry, rolled up its sleeves and set about reinventing itself. After all, the island has a history of remarkable comebacks from devastating loss, dating back to the tragic 1900 storm that killed thousands but couldn’t destroy Galveston’s spirit.

“This wasn’t their first rodeo as far as hurricanes coming through,” says Joshua Buckley, public relations coordinator at the Moody Gardens complex, who was working at the island’s daily newspaper at the time of the storm. “People could look at history and know that Galveston would be able to come back from this.”

Take a look at some of its major attractions today, and you can see how it has.

Schlitterbahn Waterpark

The damage: Perched on the western edge of Galveston proper, the water park still took on a lot of water and wind damage from the storm surge. Of the park’s 29 acres, 28 were submerged in up to 10 feet of standing sea water, damaging pumps, motors and electrical panels on rides and slides. Winds destroyed canopies and shade structures.

When the water subsided, workers found giant jet fuel tanks that had floated over from a neighboring airport and a refrigerator in a hot tub.

The repairs: At the time of Ike, Schlitterbahn was still a relatively new attraction; it had only been open since 2006. After five months of cleanup and repair, the park reopened in March 2009.

The aftermath: Over the past few years, the park has expanded to 37 acres, adding a wave pool called Shipwreck Harbor; a zip line called Soaring Eagle, on which riders sit in little suspended chairs while they blast across the park; and the largest palapa in Texas.

Info: The park, which includes an indoor section, is open weekends only through early January, plus Christmas week, and traditionally closes for most of January and February. 409-770-WAVE; www.schlitterbahn.com/gal.

Historic Galveston

The damage: Downtown’s historic Strand District, with its shops, galleries and restaurants, and the East End, with Victorian homes and stately oaks, were among the hardest hit areas.

Storm surge — and the toxic saltwater and sludge it left behind — killed thousands of trees and left buildings with interior damage that sometimes wouldn’t be fully recognized for months or years, says Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation, which manages several historic attractions in addition to encouraging historic preservation.

The repairs: The historical foundation found itself trying to fill two roles, Jones says. It worked to educate homeowners who had historic properties, encouraging preservation rather than a quick tear-down or inauthentic renovation.

And it had to assess and repair damages to the properties it managed, including the 1877 tall ship Elissa and the Bishop’s Palace, a Victorian mansion that is a museum.

Many of the repairs proved expensive and time-consuming. For instance, the $3.25 million in repairs to the Elissa will finally be completed in October, allowing the tall ship to sail again next spring, Jones says. But the wait, and the commitment to doing it right, is worth it, he says.

“Galveston’s real treasure is its extraordinary collection of historic buildings. You just don’t see this anywhere else in the state,” Jones says.

Elsewhere in downtown, business owners had to choose: rebuild or give up? While many chain retailers chose to close up shop, local businesses stepped up, working to create a Galveston more attractive to families, and with more to do and see, Joyce McLean says.

She was among them. Her old shop ruined, she worked with a large Galveston landlord to open an expanded boutique, Head to Footsies, in the Strand district. It opened one year after Ike.

In 2011, she opened two new tourist-oriented attractions: a museum called Pirates! Legends of the Gulf, and a year-round haunted house called Haunted Mayfield Manor.

“What Ike did for downtown was it gave additional people the opportunity to move into these spaces and create new kinds of businesses that weren’t there before,” she says. “Now we have this very eclectic mix. I love it.”

And in other areas, the rebuilding was even more organic and creative. Faced with thousands of dying trees, homeowners in the East End rescued many by enlisting artists to carve them into sculptures. More than 30 are scattered throughout the East End; the carved mermaids and alligators and even the Tin Man have grown so popular, there’s now an official Hurricane Ike Tree Sculptures Tour, complete with a map distributed by the tourism board.

Info: Galveston Historical Foundation (manages Bishop’s Palace, tall ship Elissa and many buildings, and sponsors the Dickens on the Strand festival), www.galvestonhistory.org.

Pirates! Legends of the Gulf: 409-762-6677; www.piratesgulfcoast.com

Haunted Mayfield Manor: 409-762-6677; www.hauntedmayfieldmanor.com

Moody Gardens

The damage: By the time Ike hit, Moody Gardens had grown from the original horse barn and riding arena into a sprawling entertainment complex, including three distinctive pyramids containing an aquarium, a rainforest ecosystem and science museum, a golf course, a 3-D theater, and a small water park.

The rainforest pyramid took the brunt of the Ike damage, with storm surge and flooding that knocked out pumps, killed plants and forced the removal of animals and birds. Otherwise, damage was largely superficial, PR rep Buckley says. Parking lots flooded, and the golf course was strewn with debris, including a boat that beached itself on a fairway.

The repairs: With the help of a grant from Galveston’s Moody Foundation, $25 million worth of enhancements were made to the rainforest pyramid; the renovation took until 2011.

Now, guests can visit a canopy area, where birds and monkeys tend to congregate, and get a tree’s-eye view of the 10-story pyramid, in addition to the looping ground-level trails.

Also in 2011, renovations and additions were unveiled at Palm Beach, the water park. They included a lazy river, two new water slides and a wave pool.

Info: 800-582-4673; www.moodygardens.com

Pleasure Pier

The damage: The site of a recreational facility, bandstand and carnival since the 1940s, the property on the pier was turned into the Flagship Hotel in 1965 after being damaged by Hurricane Carla in 1961. But Ike heavily flooded and damaged the Flagship, which had been slated for restoration by its owner, Landry’s Inc. Instead of being restored, it sat empty for years.

The repairs: Ike’s devastation led Landry’s CEO, Galveston native Tilman Fertitta, and his team to re-evaluate their plans for renovating the hotel, says Mark Kane, regional director of the theme park division of Landry’s.

“Mr. Fertitta looked at [the hotel damage] and he looked at Galveston, and he said, ‘You know what, I have a better idea,’” Kane says. That idea: Trying to re-create the success of sister amusement park property Kemah Boardwalk by building a vintage amusement attraction that celebrated Galveston’s history as a seaside resort.

But first, Kane says, engineers had to evaluate and strengthen the pier and its foundations to support the greater weight of the amusement rides. Today’s reinforced deck sits 32 inches above the original deck.

The aftermath: Open since May 2012, Pleasure Pier has 16 rides, many of which resemble souped-up carnival rides, plus old-fashioned midway games (Weight guessing! Ring tossing!) and snacks (pretzels, popcorn, hot dogs and nachos, plus $8 beers; hey, it’s an amusement park).

At night, the rides are boldly lighted, serving as an alert beacon for every kid within a 10-mile radius. And yes, kids will want to go, especially after they’ve seen rides like the Texas Star Flyer, which swings riders in a big circle more than 200 feet above the ground.

One criticism I’ve heard of the park is that all guests over age 2 must pay a $10 walk-on fee even if they don’t want to ride any rides. (Adult all-access passes are about $27.) Having visited on a typical summer day, however, I get the point of restricting access to paying guests; the pier can only hold about 7,000 people, and without the fee, crowds could get overwhelming and, perhaps, unruly.

As it is, the pier is clean and felt safe, and even on a busy weekend our wait for rides never exceeded 15 minutes, a big selling point for parents.

Info: Open Friday-Sunday through December, plus Christmas week. 855-789-7437; www.pleasurepier.com.

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