Hurricane Ike Impact Lingers As 1-Year Anniversary Approaches

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GALVESTON, Texas — The loss of lives and property inflicted by Hurricane Ike on Galveston Island and the upper Texas coast a year ago on Sept. 13 has been well-documented. Less known, however, is the Category 2 storm’s considerable impact on southeast Texas’ natural resources and the challenges facing those persons entrusted with returning impacted flora and fauna to health.

Although tremendous strides have been made to repair facilities, restore ecosystems and rebuild lives, much remains to be done. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is working to do so, assisted by roughly $7 million in federal Ike relief funding.

Almost $3 million of the federal monies will go to hire commercial fishermen to pull bagless dredges over smothered oyster reefs and place 14,000 cubic yards of materials into Galveston Bay. The cultch, which is oyster shell, limestone, crushed concrete and the like, will help create new oyster reefs to begin addressing the loss of 8,000 acres of public reefs. Sedimentation resulting the hurricane caused a loss of more than 50 percent of the oyster resource in Galveston Bay. Most restoration efforts will focus on East Galveston Bay, which lost about 80 percent of its oyster population.

"It will take years to create 350 acres of oyster reef, but it’s a start," said Lance Robinson, coastal fisheries upper coast regional director, who along with other TPWD personnel have learned some valuable lessons from Ike.

Robinson says there were lessons learned from Ike. He said his team likely will close coastal offices and move boats earlier the next time a major storm draws a bead on the Texas Gulf Coast. Big research vessels under his direction have been outfitted with solar arrays to charge batteries to generate the electricity needed to operate bilge water pumps.

Similarly, the agency’s Law Enforcement Division, which led rescue operations on Bolivar Island and all along the coast, has purchased portable, inflatable command tent systems that include electric generators and sleeping quarters.

"Because of recent experiences with Rita, Gustav and Ike, I feel we have consistently improved," said Ted Tolle, regional commander for southeast Texas. "We’ve got district supervisors and game wardens who have been tried under fire and know what needs to be done. It’s made us a better team."

One of the greatest success stories has come at Galveston Island State Park, whose beachside facilities were obliterated by Ike. One worst-case scenario suggested the park might remain closed up to seven years. But thanks to Herculean efforts by community volunteers and park staff, as well as Texas Department of Transportation crews, the state park already has reopened 66 campsites, including 36 on the beach side, and received state funding to hire a contractor to draw up a master plan to rebuild the park.

"Not just at Galveston, but at all the parks in our region, staff and volunteer efforts really moved us forward faster than expected," said Justin Rhodes, the southeast Texas region’s state parks director. "Basically, this provided labor that would have cost more than we could afford."

Nearby hard-hit San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, too, is seeing great progress in rebuilding and restoring services to visitors, including reopening a temporary park store to replace the old one destroyed by Ike-spawned flooding, according to Rhodes. All other state parks in his region, such as Lake Livingston and Martin Dies, Jr., also are fully operational. One major result from Hurricane Ike’s strike, he added, has been the formation of a regional hurricane response team to speed up evacuation assistance for both park staff and the public.

Rhodes says the future of the hardest hit coastal state park, Sea Rim, remains undetermined, but debris removal operations are wrapping up. The park’s marsh unit, he noted, should be open by Sept. 12, which will allow bank fishing opportunities and provide access to the Murphree Wildlife Management Area in time for the upcoming teal hunting season.

Several of TPWD’s wildlife management areas, too, are in various stages of repair and habitat restoration in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. The WMAs will receive about $1.7 million of the $7 million in federal relief funding to begin levee erosion and water control structure repairs, said Jim Sutherlin, who oversees several WMAs, including hard-hit J. D. Murphree, where alligator nesting was severely impacted.

"We won’t soon forget about it (the storm)," Sutherlin said. "We’ve got serious work to do still, including considerable habitat restoration, where storm scour converted marshes to open water that’s still very salty."

But for all the misery inflicted by Ike on the Gulf Coast’s natural resources, boat ramps, fishing piers and state park infrastructure, there are some positives.

"If there’s a silver lining," Sutherlin said, "it’s that the saltwater surge has killed a lot of exotic vegetation that we normally would spend thousands of dollars on herbicides and hundreds man hours to try to keep waterways and ponds open. They will reinvade, but it may keep exotics off of the coastal plains for several years."

Robinson, his counterpart in coastal fisheries, concurs.

"We shouldn’t lose sight that hurricanes are natural phenomena and many species adapt to these events. Ike’s storm surge put a lot of water in otherwise dry land, and as the water receded, it flushed out detritus in marshes and gave bays a big shot in the arm from a nutrient standpoint. We should expect to see increases in productivity in future years, all the way up to game fish like red drum and spotted sea trout."