The “good news/bad news” joke was a staple in the comics’ armory some years back and you all know how it goes. Here in Galveston, we have had good news, bad news and some news which may be either, depending on how things go. The burns hospital run by the Shriners was closed at the direction of that organization’s board. This is very bad news indeed, and was largely unanticipated by the staff there. In fact, they had been told the exact opposite: the Burns Institute will open as soon as some minor repairs are done. Period. No ifs, etc. Or not. In a series of very sudden moves, the Shriners notified the staff by email and in a rather tense public meeting, told people to move out, and that was that. Staff who talked to the media or outside the organization were threatened with dismissal, rather a hollow menace in view of what was to happen. The Burns hospital has, or had, an international reputation for treatment innovations, excellent care and strong research programs. The Shriners say that the economic meltdown has hurt their endowments to the point at which they are $2 bil behind what they need. You can go back and forth on this, but it does seem that the staff were gravely misled, as people who attended the staff meetings have testified. There was no equivocation; the word was absolutely positive. AndYet. There is no clarity on what will happen to the 30-bed hospital, labs, equipment, and the rest. Of course, things like this heighten the feeling that no administrator can be trusted, and that any official statement, ipso facto, has to be a lie.
Now, some good news. The Texas A&M University at Galveston (TAMUG) has resettled all the students who were removed to the main campus at College Station after the hurricane. TAMUG’s program stresses marine/maritime fields of study, both scientific and engineering-based. Their graduates are much sought after, or at least they are when the economy is not swirling round and round the porcelain bowl. All but about 50 students returned to Galveston. Considering the disruption they went through, thatâ€™s not bad.
The UTMB hospital is open and doing well. Plans call for the gradual expansion of services beyond the initial 200 beds, as circumstances dictate. Off-island clinics continue to be full of patients, and several of the clinics in temporary quarters have been moved back to the campus. The UTSystem Regents, or some of them, showed up at a local venue to hear citizensâ€™ views on the future of UTMB. One of the little side dramas in this unfolding plot concerns the Regents and their wounded sense of self esteem. A number of them have been stung by the amount and kind of severe criticism coming from all over the State about what they did and didnâ€™t do. They are used to much more respectful treatment and they donâ€™t like this. Itâ€™s too much like real politics. Various measures are being circulated in the Texas Legislature, which is now in session, with different sponsorships and provisions. Office holders and office seekers are keeping one eye on coming elections and trying to stake positions that will get them support. One Legislative committee reported on a plan to restore the campus to pre-hurricane levels, with modifications, but a consulting group engaged to recommend possible futures for the clinical “enterprise” recommended that the hospital functions be moved to the Mainland. There is obviously a certain, shall we say disconnect, between these two statements. Many old timers here think the consultant report was just a blind for a decision that had already been made, and others see an opportunity to take the reportâ€™s finding and turn them back on the people who commissioned the hit. Three solutions were offered: Keep the hospital functions here on the Island, move them to the mainland, keep some functions and move others. ALL THREE are money losers, over a forecast period, and the report glosses over several other factors that might be important. Or, so the critics. The real decisions are being made in the Legislature, in the usual fashion. It’s interesting to see where some of the pressure for action is coming from. Area hospitals as far as Houston are alarmed at the amount of unsponsored care they are being forced to swallow in treating the uninsured and medically indigent. And they want to get off that hook, so they are squeezing their reps to get something done. In the past it was easy to lecture UTMB about the need to get its house in order, etc, but those attitudes of fiscal virtue seem to be weakening as other places try to absorb the influx of uninsured patients. The recession threatens to create even more uninsured, although Texas has been comparatively lucky in the collapse, so far anyway. UTMB alumni are also calling and letting legislators know about their concerns. And the Solons are getting a crash course in what is required for modern medical education, and how carefully this process is supervised, and how intricately the connections to national and regional entities are woven. Itâ€™s not possible to make a purely local decision and then tell the rest of the world to buzz off, because we want to do it this way. Itâ€™s turning out to be a tough session The Leg is also unhappy with this whole uninsured thing and would just as soon that it all went away. But, that’s not possible. We have the largest percentage of uninsured of any state, and just pretending that everything is fine and things are ducky in Texas won’t do. No matter what the song says, it time for discouraging words, lots of them. The new UTSystem Chancellor visited the campus and met with key people, but there was no general assembly. Summing up, there has been a great deal of activity, if not exactly a great deal of actionâ€¦.two quite different things.
The Galveston Opera House opened on Jan. 3 and the previously scheduled performance schedule is being resumed. The Oak Ridge Boys played there last week. I was taking an early morning bike ride through downtown, and I watched the buses and trailers with their gear maneuver up to the stage door ramp. Hal Holbrook will be in town for his Mark Twain Tonight show. We saw him there the first time he toured Galveston, but we probably canâ€™t get tickets for this performance. Itâ€™s standing room only.
PHI, the helicopter service company that flies out to the oil rigs in the Gulf, is still flying out of the airport here. The company plans to rebuild the facilities that were demolished in the storm. Other helicopter taxi services are working too. Flying out to oil rigs can be pretty dangerous. There have been a number of very serious accidents. The craft have to fly low, so they are soon lost to radar, and approaching a structure like a rig, in poor weather maybe, is pretty dangerous on its own.
On our street, there has been an increase in the number of active rebuilding efforts. Many houses have a contractorâ€™s trailer or truck parked in the driveway, when that was not the case a few weeks ago. Thereâ€™s more noise from power tools and hammers. Itâ€™s a good sound, after the sepulchral emptiness of the weeks right after the hurricane. On the other hand, a couple of streets over from ours, there are a number of FOR SALE signs in yards, and one FORECLOSURE. I have heard some stories about poor workmanship or flat-out not compliance with the agreement on the part of various contractors. The construction business is in the doldrums along with much of the rest of the economy, but down here there may be more work than contractors, even with outside help, can handle. A storm on the coast means that a lot of work is available all of a sudden. This flush period lasts for a while, until people rebuild, and then the business goes sour because a lot of people have Brand-New Everything. There may be some outright cheating going on, but I think some contractors may have just taken on more jobs than they can really handle. They know this is the fat period and the lean years are coming. I understand that a number of people are giving up, whipsawed between various demands issued by local officials, mortgage companies, insurers and others. They are offering their properties “as is”, sometimes with a figure. Realtors are chary of â€œas isâ€ sales, since theyâ€™re afraid of legal entanglements later if the buyer doesnâ€™t like what s/heâ€™s getting. On the other hand, I’m hearing about people who are buying up everything they can, in the confidence that the Island will come back soon, as seacoast resorts typically do.
Speaking of signs, Iâ€™ve been noticing a shift in the number and kind of signs you can see here. First, let me explain what I mean. Galveston, the city, must have 30,000 little signs, tacked on phone poles, stuck into the ground on little metal legs, on billboards, all over. In my observation, we are into the â€œthird waveâ€ of signage. The first wave, right after the storm, was for important things, such as FEMA offices, or where to get tetanus shots or first aid, as well as for â€œfirst levelâ€ help: demolition, debris hauling and clean up, equipment rental, etc. The second wave featured names and numbers of craftsmen, builders, electricians, plumbers, roofers, and even architects and interior designers. If your place has been gutted, now might be a good time for that addition you always wanted. Everything is in a mess anyway, so go for it. The signs Iâ€™m seeing now offer legal services and independent adjuster services, and they are aimed at people who have insurance settlement offers, but who feel that the offers are unfair and way below what they should be getting. Gossip and rumor say that many, many people are in this category. Someone at our bank said he thinks the great majority are getting shabby settlement offers. So, I guess the business for the various Threateners and Litigators is good. Some builders offer in-house adjusters and ex-insurance industry types to help their clients contend with the companies. Of course, the really interesting question is: why should policy owners have to battle? And what does the fact that contractors have seen a business advantage is establishing such services tell us about our society and about us? (NB Our experience with our insurers was very satisfactory. We got a fair settlement, which was promptly paid. ) People are also complaining that mortgage companies wonâ€™t release money until the home â€œownerâ€ can show such and such a percentage of the work has been done. But, the owners say, they need the money to do the work, and canâ€™t afford to pay for it themselves, hoping to be reimbursed later. “Wind” people want to say that damages were caused by flooding, and “flood” people want to say the reverse. In one case, an owner was asked to produce “witnesses” to substantiate the claim that damage was due to wind/water. A witness! Outside, in the middle of a hurricane! So, I’m not at all surprised that people are throwing in the towel, especially older people, who don’t want to spend one more minute of their remaining time in dealing with another bureaucratic outrage or idiotic demand. As I’ve said before, the phrase “storm victim” is only too true, and much of the worst of it has nothing to do with the storm itself. If you have just lost your job or fear you will, and if your FEMA help with temporary lodging assistance is coming to an end, and if you’re being driven to distraction by paper work, itâ€™s easy to feel you are being ground up by the gears of a machine that is designed to do everything but help you, and secure everybody’s rights but yours.
A personal example may help explain how many people feel. Work at our house was stalled for a week, because the cityâ€™s sole electrical inspector was on vacation. Vacation? Now? No provision was made for a deputy or for someone else to do the job. I would gladly have paid an outside inspector’s fee and I think the contractor would have been glad to do it also, but that apparently was not possible. Everything had to wait. Our workers are from northern states and were just stupefied that something like this would be allowed to happen, but that’s how we do things, or maybe better, don’t do them. Once the electrical work was inspected and cleared, the next holdup was the plumbing inspector. Galveston supposedly is desperate to keep people living here, and attract back those who left. But a number of people are beginning to wonder if thatâ€™s really true. If it is, the City has a funny way of showing it. I was talking to man whoâ€™s lived here a while and knows his way around. He told me that officials from Pensacola and Biloxi had visited here and stressed how important it was to increase the staff in city inspection services in order to help people get started on rebuilding. If you donâ€™t let them get working, theyâ€™ll tend to leave.
In fairness, you have to remember that Galveston is a small city and it’s certainly possible for the administrative staff of a small city to be overwhelmed by the suddenly multiplying demands of a disaster. Perhaps this is an area of planning that needs more attention: what has to be done in the aftermath of a storm or other disaster to expedite recovery in every way, including streamlining of the permit/inspection process and the hiring of deputy inspectors. State and Federal agencies might be induced to pay for these and it would be money well spent. They might also be induced into providing ombudsmen for resolving damage claims without the need for lawyers and courts. But, that’s probably too “Scandinavian” and “socialist” to fly down here. One old timer I ran it past laughed and said: “We just got rid of the chain gang a few years ago. I don’t think we could have something like that”. He was kidding, of course. At least, I think he was.
Iâ€™ve been thinking that officials sometimes make a bad situation worse by issuing inane statements. After the storm, residents in the affected areas were often warned, in the media that authorities someplace had advised citizens to “boil their drinking water”. How, precisely, citizens should do that was left unaddressed. Remember many areas damaged enough to have iffy drinking water also had no electricity, or gas services (shut off for safety’s sake). There were bans on outdoor flames, such as hibachis and barbecues to reduce the fire risk. Yet, boil your water. My understanding of “boil” suggests the application of heat to a fluid, a lot of it, which should be quite difficult in the conditions I described. Galveston officials urged many of the 20,000 or so people who stayed through the storm to leave afterwards, since they were just in the way and at risk. But how could they leave and where could they go? There were no buses, or trains. Many private cars were destroyed or inoperable. Later, Galveston officials warned that the Island is “unsafe for children”. That was probably true, but if you left before the storm, as you were supposed to, and are now in temporary quarters, some distance away, what should you do with the children, while working to muck out the home or business? What is the purpose of statements such as these? They can’t really be taken seriously as guides to action, so why make them? Officials are chagrined when they are ignored or laughed at, but what other response is possible? Iâ€™m giving full credit here to the haggard, tired men and women who worked so very hard during the storm and its aftermath. They made a great many things go right. And, even Homer nodded, as the saying goes, much less a group of exhausted managers. Still.
The publisher of the local newspaper printed an address he had given to a group here, in which he gave a bare-knuckle, gloves-off assessment of what the UTSystem Regents had done for the rebuilding of UTMB. He said it was time for specifics, and no more generalizations about â€œfirm supportâ€. Too much talk, and thereâ€™s an end to it. Time for details. What was interesting to me was not so much the tone, or the argument, but the general impression the text gave that he had actually gone around both here and in Austin, and asked people questions, felt them out, checked up on who said what, tried to determine if they were lying and if so, how much and about what. Itâ€™s what used to be called old fashioned shoe-leather reporting and is almost completely lost now. There was a reporter on the Washington Post, who is now deceased, and who rarely went to official news conferences or other festivals of managed truth. Instead, he read the Federal budget, carefully, and was as expert in it as anyone. Administration flacks feared him, when he did show up since he had the details down and could rarely be fooled by phony numbers or other razzmatazz. As I mentioned, heâ€™s dead.
I went to the Galveston Symphony Orchestra’s concert in the Opera House a while ago. The place doesn’t look too bad inside, but there are signs of damage, in the ceilings of some rooms for instance. The carpeting on the entry stairway from the street level to the hall has been removed, but the rest of the interior looks pretty good, to the casual eye. Scaffolding covers the front of the building for some reason. I think masons are repairing the brick work, but I can’t say if that’s storm damage or regular maintenance. The Orchestra played very well, and gave a particularly interesting performance of a repertoire warhorse, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which they handled with address and zest…no plodding. The audience was atypically small, but, this is the first GSO performance since the storm, and many of our regular audience are off the Island temporarily or have moved. Small steps, small steps.
So, to close. “Things are Looking Up” as the old Gershwin song put it. It’s now some five months after the hurricane, and the signs of renewal are to be found in many places, but not everywhere, and not to the same extent. Grass is growing and there is more green sprouting on bushes and shrubs, but many, many trees were killed. So homes and business are back or close to it, and some seem abandoned and desolate. The human toll in terms of wrecked lives, family strains, lost wealth, and damaged health has been very great, and it continues, as people try to decide whether to stay or move. The spreading economic distress makes it all harder. Anguish, fear, anger and even some despair are to be found. It will be a long while before the City is anywhere close to where it was before Sept. 13, 2008. And of course, I canâ€™t close this without mentioning that, although I have been writing about Galveston proper, because thatâ€™s where I live and work, things I have said go Double in Spades for other places in this area: the Bolivar peninsula was almost erased by the storm, large areas of the counties around Galveston Bay were very badly punished, we are still finding bodies, and there are a number of people who so far have not been traced. Thousands of trees were killed or damaged to the point at which property owners have to have them cut down. Many animals perished. Fences were destroyed by the mile. So, as you read this, have a thought for all the other people down here, many very much worse off than I am, who are trying to get their lives back, in very difficult circumstances, at a very trying time in the countryâ€™s history.