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The city that isn't coming back

GALVESTON — Coming over the causeway onto the island, you can smell the mildew.

Then you see the boats strewn every which way. Apparently, a month ago they simply came in on the 14-foot tide and didn't go out with it. And so they remain, upside down or resting on their keels, in parking lots and on boulevards, in front yards and in esplanades, ruined beyond salvation, waiting for the 110 mph winds that drove them here to drive them back to the sea.

Would that everything would go back out to the sea and wipe the place clean, especially that massive mountain of garbage that grows hourly in the vacant lots where the Cotton Exchange warehouses used to welcome everyone to one of the nation's most important ports.

That was a long time ago, when Galveston had money and swagger.

Which is why it has battled back every time from every storm thrown on its shores in the last century. There was that most famous one in 1900 that killed 6,000 or more. Another in 1915 in which the brand new seawall proved its worth. Then the ferocious Hurricane Carla in 1961 and the equally devastating Alicia in 1983.

I'm not sure it can survive this time. Mostly because, post-Katrina, nobody can be moved to come and look.

This place where I was born and where my parents have lived for many years has picked a bad time to be in trouble. This time, the storm surge was so high and so vast that the north end of the 27-mile-long-by-3-mile-wide island met the south end and the west end met the east.

Best guess is that 75 percent of the homes have flood damage. That only 60 percent of the 60,000 people who lived here on Sept. 13 when Hurricane Ike blew through are back. That the main economic engine of the island will most likely lay off 4,000 workers in the next month, that it already would have if not for the Texas legislature intervening.

I could tell you about the billions in damage. I could tell you that the historic "Wall Street of the South" downtown took on 11 feet of water. That the University of Texas Medical Branch hospital will most likely go from a 600-bed facility to a 200-bed facility when it opens again. That the entire children's section of the massive public library is gone. That the shorebirds and the sea gulls have not returned and it's not clear when they will. That the wind insurance people say the surge is a water insurance problem and the flood insurance people say the surge is a wind insurance problem and that everybody with either or both is getting screwed.

That because of flood-insurance regulations, half of the homes damaged by floods will be destroyed completely by the city and rebuilt only if on 11-foot stilts. Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency nor standard insurance will pay for the difference in rebuilding costs, so only the wealthy will be able to rebuild. The rest will simply leave the ruin or the empty lot and the financial chaos behind them.

Seven thousand people here still don't have power. A lot don't have land-line phone service or natural gas. You have to wait in line to shop at the Target because not enough people have returned to staff the stores. You can shop at will at Wal-Mart, but there are armed guards watching.

Nobody is dead in the streets but lives are gone, figuratively enough, anyway.

Almost every blade of grass in this town is dead because saltwater is not its natural milieu. The mighty oaks on Broadway, the boulevard that splits town and is still home to admittedly bereft mansions now, are either broken in two or look like they have rusted in place. Thousands of gallons of water are being poured on them to save them, but the graveyard of trees is only a small window to the graveyard of homes that awaits if you take any right or left turn off Broadway and venture into neighborhoods.

The first wave of trash that went to every curb was copious amounts of wet stuff. Imagine. Everything in the first level of your house in one giant sopping wad. A lot of it represents everything that has ever happened to you or for you or before you were even here and it's worthless now.

The 'dozers and the machines with claws and the big trucks came by and gathered that stuff — so far, 1.5 million cubic yards of it — and took it to the mountain of trash to be trucked off the island sometime in the future.

Then the second wave of trash got hauled to the curb. It was the sheetrock and the insulation and appliances and the ductwork and electrical and it was still there as the first month anniversary came around.

Hence the mold spore infestation that seems to be growing in everyone's lungs.

My mother, who had been in Kentucky with me for the month, did not cry when she saw Galveston the first day I brought her home and she saw that Murdoch's, the souvenir shell shack that has jutted over the Gulf since 1910 and a fixture in front of her home on Seawall Boulevard, had blown away. At 80, she has seen sorrow and this was bad but not irretrievable.

On the second day home, she seemed intent on being grateful for her own good fortune, because some people here were extremely lucky. She had no sympathy for those who complained of a small inconvenience such as having to truck in their own ice.

On the third, when we went to see dear friends who had lost everything, she stood in their house full of nothing and tried to say brave things and she dabbed at her eyes and that was all.

Tears are beside the point now.

At the one-month anniversary of Hurricane Ike, there is no ferry service from Galveston to Bolivar Island, where more bodies are likely to be found in coming months. There is no way to know what will be rebuilt. Whether people will ever have the money or the will to try to start over.

The trash, one debris company contractor told the local paper, will probably take two years to scrape off the streets.

An American town, not as glamorous as New Orleans but as interesting in many ways, is going under. Its people are living in makeshift shelters or other people's extra second-floor bedrooms. Its churches are still feeding hundreds of meals a day, free to anyone who comes by. Its shelters are about to close but are still full.

Its stores — if you don't count the two big groceries, the Home Depot and the car repair shops — are trying to figure out how to open for a few hours, if at all. Its tourist business is hard to imagine. It has, essentially, no economy to help it off its knees and no press machine to call attention to its woes.

My mother is moving to Kentucky next month.

Galveston's recovery will take longer than she has, she says. Even if she lives to be 100.

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