Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on KHOU.com on Sept. 11, 2015.
Award Note: This story was won a first place Lone Star Award for Internet News Feature Story by the Houston Press Association on June 25, 2016.
The haunting images from Hurricane Ike serve as a reminder of the power of Mother Nature. In a matter of hours, a single storm turned a stretch of the Galveston coastline—from Jamaica Beach in the West End to Gilchrist on the Bolivar Peninsula—into more than 40 miles of saltwater wasteland.
Hurricane Ike barged in the Texas coast in the early morning hours of Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, and with its powerful storm surge it swept away houses, leveled buildings and caused nearly $30 billion in damages. It was the third costliest Atlantic hurricane in American history.
Many residents who evacuated returned to nothing. Those who stayed—those who survived—still count their blessings that they weren’t swept away so carelessly by the raging storm that left miles of destruction in its wake.
As Hurricane Ike barreled toward the Texas coast, Carole Hamadey made preparations for her evacuation from her Crystal Beach home.
Until it was too late.
“I survived, and it’s a miracle,” Hamadey says today.
A miracle for herself and two others in her home.
As Ike moved into the southeastern portion of the Gulf of Mexico Sept. 10, it began regaining strength as it made its way to the Galveston coast. The National Hurricane Center issued warnings and urged residents on the coast to evacuate as soon as possible. By Friday, Sept. 12, they warned, ferries off the Bolivar Peninsula would stop running and Ike’s storm surge would likely submerge all bridges.
But the most peculiar thing was happening. Yes, some residents began evacuating, but many stayed because the National Hurricane Center classified Ike as a Category 2 storm. Residents, for the most part, were only going to evacuate for a Category 3 storm or worse. The false sense of security came after a mass evacuation that included roughly two million Houstonians and Galvestonians for Hurricane Rita in 2005. That storm took a slight turn east, away from Houston and made landfall between Sabine Pass and Johnson’s Bayou, La. But the mass evacuation was already underway. Major highways out of Houston, including Interstate 45 that leads in and out of Galveston, were clogged with cars running out of gas, families running out of food and water—an evacuation disaster in every sense of the term—that led residents to question in 2008 whether it was worth it to leave or ride out the storm.
“We evacuated for Rita and we sat in traffic for 13 hours—and we went to College Station,” said a woman named Cookie, who lives on Galveston Island. “I could have rode my riding lawnmower faster. We didn’t evacuate (during Ike) because it wasn’t going to be bad because it was only a (Category 2).”
But Cookie, like many who stayed, claimed they were unaware that while Ike’s wind speeds only showed a Category 2 hurricane, its storm surge was equivalent to a Category 4.
Hamadey saw the effects of that devastating storm surge first-hand.
Hamadey had a plan to evacuate: She and her friend, Dyan, planned to leave Thursday evening—still within the recommended evacuation time by emergency officials. When Hamadey picked up Dyan Tuesday, Dyan asked to stop and pick up another woman who had no other means to evacuate. Hamadey obliged.
“On Thursday, I made a nice big dinner in the afternoon to get rid of food, and (the woman) said, ‘I’m really tired; I’m going to go lay down,’” Hamadey recalled. “And she said, ‘As a matter of fact, I’m just going to sleep; we’ll leave in the morning.’ She went into her room, locked the door and we couldn’t get her out of the room for anything.”
What were they to do: leave and evacuate themselves or stay and attempt to evacuate Friday morning? Hamadey and Dyan agreed: they couldn’t leave her.
Ike continued its run to the coast.
A mile away at The Big Store, owner Keith Zahar had done what he could to protect his livelihood from the approaching storm and had evacuated. Bolivar resident Janelle Brannan left her home and evacuated 16 miles away to High Island, the highest point above sea level on the Gulf Coast. In Gilchrist, Nancy Bachman, who had just moved to the area, had to board up her new business and leave with the hope it survived.
Storm surges on the peninsula were quickly climbing beyond the beaches’ banks and into neighborhoods. By 5 a.m. Friday, water was climbing at an almost unbelievable rate, Hamadey said, as she and her two guests remained in her home. When they finally attempted to evacuate to High Island that morning, they didn’t make it two miles before they were met with flooded streets and were forced to turn around.
They were left with one choice: ride out the storm.
Former KHOU 11 Chief Meteorologist and Director of the National Hurricane Center Dr. Neil Frank estimates 150 people stayed on the peninsula.
Ike’s eye made landfall in Galveston Bay shortly after midnight Saturday, Sept. 13. The storm surge quickly pushed water levels on the peninsula upwards of 15-plus feet. On Galveston Island, water cascaded into Galveston Bay, flooding the Island from the back side, where water along The Strand and nearby streets reached six or more feet, forcing residents into their attics to escape the rising water.
Ike destroyed the famous Balinese Room that sat on a pier that extended into the ocean from the Seawall. Debris from the storm flooded Seawall Boulevard. On the West End, beachfront houses were washed away and they collided with nearby homes, sending pieces floating into the sea.
But none of the destruction compared to what was occurring on Bolivar.
Hamadey watched as the water began flowing over her 16-foot deck and into her living room. Her hurricane shutters strategically placed on the outside of her backyard windows that faced the ocean helped take the brunt of the initial surge, but the water still found a way inside through the front of the house.
How she and her guests survived is a harrowing tale.
“Water would come in and hit the ceiling,” she said.
“I took some (wire) hangars and attached them to the windows so they wouldn’t suck me out—I slid them under the window, tied them to extension cords, tied the extension cords to the bed to create tensions and pulled the bed out to keep it tight. Then we held the tops of the windows down while the hangars held the bottom of the windows.”
Seven years later, Hamadey still can hardly believe her own story.
“This is crazy if anybody would hear it,” she said. “You can’t believe it. You’re soaking wet and water comes in, hits the ceiling and drenches everything, and then everything is almost sucked out.”
It wasn’t until Monday, three days after Ike made landfall, that the Coast Guard rescued them.
The image of the aftermath of the peninsula is haunting. Of the more than 5,000 homes and businesses there before Ike, more than 3,500 were destroyed. The storm blew in and, almost like a frustrated chess player, threw its arm across the peninsula and sent nearly everything off the board.
At least 20 people died. Some 75 others had to be evacuated by the Coast Guard. On High Island, longtime Bolivar resident Brannan and others were surrounded by water for days.
“We worked. We helped people get water for their coffee, we worked at the grocery store, we all chipped in and did what we had to do,” Brannan said.
Though through all the damage and destruction Ike caused across the coast, seven years later a new life continues to grow, and today it’s hard to tell that a hurricane ever hit. The landscape, once a saltwater wasteland, is now green and lush. From the West End to Gilchrist, signs flood the streets promoting new subdivisions with new half-million dollar homes.
In the aftermath of the storm, builders were constructing up to 30 new homes a month on the peninsula. Homes now are being built taller in hopes to prevent such devastating losses during future hurricanes—because there will always be another hurricane. Precautions are being made for such. Minimum regulations for floor levels of new homes are now 14 feet, with lower insurance premiums the higher the floor level. Some houses have built floor levels at 20 feet.
“It’s been remarkable the support that people have done to come back and build,” Zahar said.
Zahar was one of the first people back on the island—there was never a question that he was going to return. After all, his store is an integral part of the community.
“After the storm, I called the county and said, ‘You need to let people back in. I’m coming back in and if we don’t, we’re never going to make it back,’” he said.
Nancy Bachman returned to Gilchrist to find that Ike had leveled her new tavern
“It was heartbreaking,” she said.
But she, too, has rebuilt and now owns Miss Nancy’s Bait Camp next to Rollover Pass.
As life continues to rebuild and flourish on the Galveston coast, the haunting images continue to serve as a reminder of the power of Mother Nature and the Gulf.
Until the next storm hits.