The Texas Gulf Coast is still on the mend from Hurricane Harvey. The deadly storm displaced residents and caused damage that will take many more months to fully repair. But repairs aside, how long will it take for hard-hit areas to really recover? One way to predict that answer is to look to the past. It’s been 10 years since Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on Texas.
I took the long way from Austin to the Bolivar Peninsula, riding out of the Hill Country into increasingly swampy and humid territory. The Bolivar Peninsula is a spit of land southeast of Houston that was devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Port Bolivar is a shrimping and oystering community on the bay side of the peninsula. I rode slowly through town looking at rows of small, one-story wooden houses. The only businesses I saw were a Mexican restaurant and a bait shop. That’s where I met Joe Comeaux, who owns Joe’s Bait & Crabs. He came out to greet me with his shirt off and a crab in one hand.
“Oh I grew up right here in this little old town,” Comeaux says. “About a mile down the road.”
As we talked, Comeaux worked under a corrugated metal roof propped up on tall wooden poles next to his house. He was surrounded by buckets of shrimp and crab, and there were dozens of tiny kittens wandering the floor, as well as least three large turkeys. As he peeled shrimp, he told me about how Port Bolivar had changed in the years since Ike.
“It’s more touristy people now,” he says. “Because all them got washed away with the storm.”
The little houses he means. They got washed away. The new houses are bigger. What’s not bigger are the trees – most of them anyway.
“Yeah this town was full of oak trees,” Comeaux says. “Big oak trees. Of all kinds. Down here, if you walk a mile or so down the road here there’s one…. And a few in my brother’s yard, about 35-40 years old. But all the big giant ones right next to it, there used to be no houses there when we were kids, it was like a jungle. Ike killed every one of them. The old ones.”
He also members what it looked like right after the storm hit.
“Pieces of porches and sinks and grass and decks,” he says. “It was everywhere. I shoulda took pictures of that but I was just trying to get it cleaned up. You couldn’t walk nowhere.”
Comeaux’s home wasn’t blown to pieces like many others, just flooded.
“I couldn’t get in the doors because they were swole,” Comeaux says. “So I tore that window off and when I looked in there everything just floated around.”
I asked him if people are worried about a storm like Ike hitting Port Bolivar again. He said there’s nothing to do about it but move. A lot of people did.
I met one man who moved the next day. I found him hanging out with his friend on the porch of the General Store. I didn’t get his name but he told me his story.
“We had a beach cabin, it looked like a small snow cone stand on stilts,” he says. “It was only maybe fifteen by fifteen, one room…”
He says his grandfather had built the cabin in Port Bolivar in 1935 and he came here every summer for 15 years.
“Through a lot of storms our cabin was the only one that stood,” he says “through hurricane Carla in 1950, through all of the hurricanes.”
Until Hurricane Ike.
“The only way I could find where my cabin used to be…there was a water cistern under our cabin and I painted it maroon when I was 12 years old,” he says. “And it was still there…And I went, god that’s where my cabin was…I cleaned thousands of fish on this cistern tank…and it was the only thing left…”
Despite his loss, the man says he’s not worried about the possibility of more intense hurricanes or rising sea levels.
“So my take – of what I’ve seen myself. It’s not been from climate change. It’s been from Mother Nature,” he says.
We talked a little more, and then he took off to fish.
I left to go find Robert Bose’s house. He’d lived on the island forever and Joe Comeaux told me he’d be a good guy to talk to. Bose was shooting grackles off a tree in his backyard when I knocked on the gate. I introduced myself to him and his wife, Jerri.
“I was born here, just a block over on 7th street. In 1936. August 25th 1936. I was born here on the peninsula,” Robert Bose says. “We had water, 56 inches in here. “It was – everything in here that you see is – somebody given it to us.”
“After the storm,” Jerri Bose says.
“Yes. After the storm, it was given to us,” Robert says. “Well, we bought the refrigerator.”
But they remember others suffered far worse.
“Especially down here there was eight or nine houses just gone,” Robert says.
“From 7 down to 3rd and back,” Jerri says. “One block that way, there was 19 houses gone.”
“It was slow moving out in the gulf when it came cross Cuba there, until it got here,” Robert says. “It was the tidal surge that was bad. Most hurricanes that have 100-mile-hour wind doesn’t have a tidal surge like that.”
“It came in so fast and so high some people waited ‘till the last minute,” Jerri says.
“Bill Murphy and Barbara….They waited too late and got to high island and they had to get out of their cars and swim toward high island,” Robert says. “A helicopter picked ‘em up. A helicopter picked her up and he had to swim over to high island to keep from drowning. He almost drowned. See the helicopter didn’t have room for but one person.”
Despite those vivid memories they say they don’t think about if and when another hurricane might hit.
“I never think about it,” Jerri says. “I figure God’s in control of whatever it is, it’s gonna be. We have our faith in him. We know it’s going to be alright. Whatever comes.”
But that doesn’t mean they don’t think about the future, or how Ike changed things here.
“The face of the Bolivar peninsula has changed an awful lot,” Jerri says. “But it’s coming back. You’ll see there are places where the Oak trees are coming. People have replanted.”
The hurricane that hit here was ten years ago, but it still weighs heavy. The same is likely to be true for communities devastated by Harvey. In another decade, reconstruction efforts after Harvey will probably have long faded from the headlines. But the people of Port Bolivar say that the recovery takes much longer than that.
Will McCarthy is a freelance audio journalist. His work appears at https://www.belvedereroad.com.