Today is a dreary day, with a cold front promised for tonight, and the chance of some freezing rain along with it. Yesterday and Saturday were on the warm side, for December, and today we’re grabbing for parkas and gloves. Last weekend the Dickens Evening on the Strand celebration was held and this past weekend the Lone Star Motorcycle Rally was in town. Both events resulted in pretty heavy hotel bookings and good seating for those restaurants that were open, and that’s good news for the tourist side of the local economy. Two cruise ships are operating out of the Port of Galveston. Since the ships can get out into Galveston Bay and then into the open sea fairly quickly, Galveston is an attractive base. More and more smaller businesses and stores are re-opening, or are slated to. There should be a big rush of re-openings after New Year. Over ten thousand building permits have been issued by the City of Galveston since the hurricane. Contractors are starting to work on our house, and on the neighbors’ on both sides of us.That makes about a dozen repair or rebuilding projects underway on our street. A block over, you can see several trailers parked in driveways or on lawns. People are living there while they rebuild, and for some, it’s a good option. You can be close to the property, the comfort level is not bad, depending on the vehicle, and it’s much easier to schedule appointments with builders and suppliers if you live on the Island than if you have to drive in from some other place. But, there are still a large number of residences and other buildings, badly damaged in the storm, that don’t show any signs of activity,or even interest, on the part of their owners. Some of the marginal and dilapidated buildings will doubtless be razed, and others may be awaiting insurance settlements or other funding before work can begin. A great part of the public housing inventory was ruined, and a number of people will be housed in FEMA trailers that will be set up in various parts of the city. Eactly what to do about public housing has become a topic of discussion. It might be cheaper to start over with new buildings than to attempt a rescue of the ones damaged by the storm. Galveston residents who are toying with the idea of leaving the Island face the decision about where to go. It isn’t easy, starting over in a new place, even if material and financial concerns don’t limit your choices too much. You can overhear conversations on that topic and after one or two, they all become pretty much of a muchness as Alice said. Pre-IKE Galveston offered a number of advantages to residents: University medicine, an active cultural and artistic scene, commerce, mild winters, a sea-side resort relaxed quality, fishing and birding opportunities, and all of it concentrated in a fairly small area. There are not many places with that menu of advantages, so a decision to move elsewhere involes difficult choices.
More of the UTMB medical clinics are being returned to campus from temporary quarters on the mainland. Diagnostic radiology, dermatology, family medicine, and several others now have space here, and are up and running. Many of the mainland clinics are jammed with patients. Getting the hospital back into operating condition (and that’s not a pun) has been more difficult, due in part to very stringent air quality tests, ensuring that various pathogens are not circulating through the air return system, especially in the surgical suites. Cultures are taken every day for seven days, and each culture takes three days to process. The place has to be clean, each day for the seven day period. One miss, and they start over. And, use of the upper floors requires reliable electricity and elevator service. The power company will be changing out some ‘iffy’ equipment this week, so stability in service should not be so much of a worry. De-humdifying and drying out equipment is still running in some buildings, as you can see from the compressors and generators outside and the plastic piping sticking through windows. It’s hard to imagine what could have gotten so wet, so high up, but at least three buildings have upper-floor air vents running to them from compressors at street level. A number of campus buildings, including the Library and several of the research laboratories, have returned to their normal operating schedules, instead of an 8-5 Monday through Friday work week. The campus still feels desolate, especially at the end of the regular working day, when darkness gathers and when traffic used to be quite heavy. As more facilities re-locate here, things should start to feel less “dead”. Someone in the campus catering service said to me that they don’t expect to get back to their old quarters in the hospital building for another six months. Right now they are working out of tents set up on the upper level of a parking garage. Walking the dog at night, I can see the shadowy upper floors of campus buildings, darkened except for the occasional hall or window light. It adds to the gloom and sense of abandonment.
Galveston, UTMB and their intertwined fates are starting to generate attention elsewhere in the state. The Texas Legislature meets next month, and there are some expectations that these problems will be raised by area legislators in an effort to get some subtantial assistance in restoring the campus. Pressure may come from representatives of other counties which were using UTMB as a place to send their uninsured and indigent patients. Now that we are out of that business, these other counties have to deal with this problem directly and they are not enjoying the experience much. Some state senators and representatives are annoyed at the Regents and the Governor, as well. They have quite bluntly suggested that a number of things would be possible if somebody in UTSystem would get off the dime. Spokesfolks for the Regents and for other state officials all affirm a commitment to UTMB’s future. They are widely disbelieved down here however, and even direct and explicit statements from officials themselves, in the press or in testimony to appropriate bodies, are dismissed as official lying, on the principle that actions speak louder than words. A number of faculty members have expressed dissatisfaction at the situation and have said that they have set personal deadlines, at which point they will go elsewhere, taking their grant money and trained staff with them, if they can’t see signs of real progress. This too is downsizing, but of the wrong kind. It’s exactly these people we should be trying to keep, but elaborate explanations about why nothing can be done for this or that reason don’t satisfy, and people here are starting to look for action on the part of the Legislature to get something done.
The Texas Legislature meets only every two years and for a brief period. Usually, a flurry of bill-filings comes first, then follows a longish period of hearings, testimony, debate, log-rolling, arm-twisting and IOU collecting as lawmakers concentrate on favorite items or those being pushed by lobbyists. At the end of the session there is usually a rush to get bills enacted, often in rather disgraceful and rowdyish circumstances, for a body supposedly consisting of adult men and women. It’s hard to calculate the fate of any action intended to aid Galveston, or UTMB, or alter to complex skein of relations governing the UTsystem. But, nothing ventured….
We’re closing the year on a decidedly muted and somber note. The storm and the uncertainty about the future of the county’s largest employer would be bad enough, but the general econonomic downturn is the third in a series of heavy strikes we’ve had to counter somehow. We are all hopeful for some better news in the new year.