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Galveston Pushes Gentrification by Hurricane

Katie Heim Oct 24, 2008

Houston Independent Media Center

GALVESTON, Texas — Charles Early runs an Internet bookstore from his apartment on the west end of Galveston Island. After Hurricane Ike came ashore Sept. 13 with 110 mph winds and an 11-foot storm surge, Earley, like so many other frustrated Galveston residents, wanted to go home to begin picking up the pieces and assessing damages. Texas officials had closed the island to residents indefinitely, which was creating a huge burden for Earley and others.

“Those people who are really being hurt the most are the people who can least afford,” he said. “If you are poor and you’re renting a place, all your stuff is being ruined while you are waiting for the mayor to let you on.”

From the moment Galveston Island was closed, access to the island was entirely dependent on who you were and who you knew. Prominent business owners, public officials and wellknown families were permitted on the island to assess damage and begin rebuilding. Private contractors poured in while average homeowners were barred from entry even as the threat of toxic mold over-running their homes grew daily. Less than a week after the storm, the city looked like a ghost town in all residential areas while the epicenter of the tourist industry was abuzz with private contractors.

Residents lacking the prominence or political connections to return earlier finally came home Sept. 24, 11 days after Ike devastated the small island city of 57,000 people. Galveston city officials wasted no time implementing a Katrina-like gentrification policy. Most of the residents of Galveston’s 975 units of public housing were ordered to vacate their homes and have their belongings cleared out by Sept. 26.

Many disabled and elderly residents hit public housing employees with a barrage of questions: Where am I supposed to live? How long do I have to get my things out? Where is FEM A? Where is the housing authority? Are they going to tear this place down? Questions that were met with deafening silence. With shelters and hotels full for hundreds of miles, a tent city sprouted outside a local elementary school.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEM A) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are offering displaced public housing residents an 18-month rental assistance program that is slated to begin Nov. 1. However, it is uncertain where they will end up as surrounding counties are already inundated with hurricane victims seeking affordable housing. Like New Orleans three years prior, poorer residents are finding little to come home to.

Homeowners are being encouraged to apply for assistance through FEM A. Uninsured and under-insured residents can recover up to 50 percent of the value of their losses from the storm if their application is approved by a privately-contracted FEMA inspector. Resident’s who are not satisfied with the agency’s ruling will have to hire an outside contractor to assess damages to their homes.

BUSH-CLINTON CHARITY

President George W. Bush, Jr. toured the island Oct. 14, with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush Sr., giving a press conference outside of the one of the island’s most monied and prominent subdivisions. In a scene eerily reminiscent of New Orleans, Bush Jr. congratulated public officials and formally announced the creation of the Bush-Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund. Former U.S. Secretary of State and longtime Bush family friend James Baker was selected to head fund-raising efforts. Bush Jr. and Bush Sr. posed for photo ops on the island stressing the need to rebuild Galveston’s tourist beaches and prevent future beach erosion.

Just as the French Quarter is booming while New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward lays in ruins a few miles away, Galveston residents are now forced to watch the same “business as usual” facade being erected in their coastal home. On its official website, the City of Galveston boasts of a number of upcoming events and tourist attractions including a business expo, cemetery tours, a Beach Boys concert and plenty to do just in time for the winter season.

One is left to wonder when the tours of the ravaged parts of the city will begin.