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Galveston Article In Today's Wall Street Journal


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There's a really good article in today's wall street journal. The link is below, but you may have to be a subscriber to see it. Also, the online edition has some cool photos.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB1184365722...ays_us_pursuits

Standing atop the bulwarks protecting this slender island from the Gulf of Mexico's pounding surf and rising tides, it's hard to believe that the place is actually sinking -- by about a quarter-inch a year.

Erosion is compounding the problem, gradually washing away the sandy filament of land hugging Texas's curving coastline and making the island even more vulnerable to nature's wrath. Galveston, of course, is known for the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history: the 1900 hurricane that killed more than 6,000 here.

Galveston's 10-mile long, 17-foot high seawall protects the east end of the island, where the original city lies, from erosion and storm surge.

You'd think all this would scare people away -- especially after the devastation wrought in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. But Galveston is booming. Some locals say all the attention Katrina focused on the Gulf Coast actually helped raise awareness of Galveston as a vacation destination.

In the past few years, anyone searching for beach property couldn't help but notice how much land was still available in Galveston at a fraction of the price of more fashionable East Coast resort towns. Even with some beachfront prices nearly doubling in the past five years, a newly built home in Galveston might cost $300 to $400 a square foot, compared with upward of $1,000 a square foot in the Miami area.

That's making Galveston one of the hottest vacation-home and resort markets in the country. There's $2.4 billion in new commercial and residential construction under way on the island. Investors, retirees and vacationers see building on Galveston as a simple economic gamble. They figure they have good odds of getting plenty of value out of their beach homes before a hurricane washes them away.

Galveston got into my blood when I was growing up along the Gulf Coast in the late 1960s and '70s. My family spent summers at our vacation home on Galveston Bay, further inland from the Gulf. But from time to time my parents would pile all the kids into the 1972 Ford station wagon, fishing poles bristling out the open windows, and we'd drive down to the Galveston surf for a weekend of fishing and camping in the wide-open coastal wilderness.

The 19th century Bishop's Palace survived the 1900 hurricane

When I came here as a kid, civilization dropped off at the west end of the 10-mile-long sea wall. There, the paved Seawall Boulevard that ran atop the concrete rampart terminated in a steep ramp that would let you drive down to the beach. My parents would put down the tailgate and we older kids would ride back there, dragging sticks in the sand, as we bumped along slowly down the beach searching for a place to camp.

Now that old ramp at the end of the sea wall is a stark reminder of how much the island is shrinking. Instead of diving down to the beach, the ramp dives straight into the waves that have encroached far inland.

Throughout its history, Galveston has been a striking testament to human persistence and ingenuity -- and the power of denial. The island has a stomach-churning history of boom and bust. Its rise as a major Southern port city was cut short by the 1900 hurricane.

Protected by a new 17-foot sea wall, Galveston boomed again as the Sin City of the Gulf until Texas Rangers shut down its illegal gambling trade in the late 1950s. After that, eclipsed by the Port of Houston, Galveston limped through the remainder of the 20th century, struggling to pay the bills.

This century has seen Galveston's fortunes rise again. The island is beloved in Texas as part of the state's colorful past and also for its diverse appeal. Tourists flock to the historic districts and miles of public beaches, while fishermen and birders hang out along the jetties, bayous and surf. Out-of-town investors have revitalized the east end of the island, protected by the sea wall, where the original city and docks were built. Now it is a vibrant tourist spot packed with restaurants and shops against a backdrop of cruise ships and barnacle-covered fishing boats lined up along the docks.

The new Pointe West development

In nearby historic neighborhoods, new residents are resurrecting Victorian architecture. The Galveston port now hosts one of the nation's top-five cruise markets. The island also has new attractions, including a Schlitterbahn Waterpark and an expanded Moody Gardens.

Several new high-end resorts have opened in the past few years, including Pointe West, a complex of vacation homes, trails, lagoons and a beach club on the western tip of the island. On the opposite end, Palisade Palms, a pair of 28-story beachfront condominium towers, is under construction.

The latest growth spurt is a welcome renaissance, but controversial among longtime residents, especially among BOIs -- local jargon for those Born On the Island. Some blue-collar workers now can't afford to live on the island because of rising rents and property taxes.

The latest battle concerns a proposed 1,000-acre west-end development that would create almost 4,000 new homes along with two hotels and a marina. The west end of the island has changed the most -- the land of "the stilt people," according to Victor Lang, a retired Washington lobbyist who performs a one-man show on Galveston history. There's no sea wall on the western two-thirds of the island, so buildings must be raised high on wooden piers, or stilts, to protect them from rising water.

There's still lots of vacant land but it's rapidly filling in. That worries the naturalists, who see the pristine coastal prairies, wetlands and bird habitats disappearing beneath the new construction.

The historic Strand

Opponents also wonder how much more the environmentally sensitive island can stand before it gets washed away. Exhibit A is a study by University of Texas geologist James Gibeaut, who was recently commissioned by the city to map out the areas most vulnerable to erosion, storm surges and rising sea levels. Barrier islands like Galveston are nature's way of protecting sensitive coastlines from erosion. They build up over thousands of years, and then erode, shift, and sometimes disappear over subsequent centuries.

When Mr. Gibeaut looks at Galveston, he sees an island in transition. "It's getting skinnier," he says. The land is two feet lower than it was 100 years ago, and erosion has been eating away at the unprotected west end.

But that doesn't seem to be deterring people. I understand. My husband and I are thinking of building our own summer home on the Texas coast. My children will never experience Galveston the way it was, but they can still see some of its history, explore the sand dunes and chase fiddler crabs on the beach. To us, some things are worth the risk.

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"Erosion is compounding the problem, gradually washing away the sandy filament of land hugging Texas's curving coastline and making the island even more vulnerable to nature's wrath."

Certainly the powers that be have done at least some research on erosion control, yet I never here it mentioned.

Anyone?

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"Erosion is compounding the problem, gradually washing away the sandy filament of land hugging Texas's curving coastline and making the island even more vulnerable to nature's wrath."

Certainly the powers that be have done at least some research on erosion control, yet I never here it mentioned.

Anyone?

Actually, this is discussed on a regular basis. Numerous solutions are proposed, including Geotubes, sand fences, beach replenishment, extending the Seawall (not really feasible), development restrictions, and others. In the mid-90s, the Geotube solution was all the rage. It is a long sock filled with sand, laid along the dune line. Sand blows up and over the sock, creating dunes. However, Tropical Storm Francis, a low grade storm, wiped them out.

Extending the Seawall would be prohibitively expensive, take away beachfront property, and be an environmental nightmare. Beach replenishment is often discussed, but the sand washes away, requiring more expensive replenishment. Development restrictions are currently in the news. The practice of leaving seaweed on the beach, which is lambasted by the "Why can't we be like Destin?" crowd, is actually an environmentally friendly erosion control program. The seaweed blows into the dunes, and catches sand, helping rebuild the depleted dune line.

The only times it really makes the news is the occasional flare up that occurs when the wishes of home owners or developers clashes with the conclusions of the environmental studies.

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They make it sound as if the island won't be there for very long say: Enjoying that sinking feeling" Can something be done to stop the sinking? Are they thinking of solutions to save the island?

Edited by citykid09
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The practice of leaving seaweed on the beach, which is lambasted by the "Why can't we be like Destin?" crowd, is actually an environmentally friendly erosion control program. The seaweed blows into the dunes, and catches sand, helping rebuild the depleted dune line.

I was in Galveston last week and spoke with a guy that drives the tractors back and forth that rake the beaches for seaweed. At this time of year, according to him, if the beaches don't get raked, they can build up a mound of the stuff that is five feet high. Seems hard for me to imagine, except possibly at low tide, but it makes perfect sense that the seaweed would capture sand, fill in, and create new beach.

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  • The title was changed to Galveston Article In Today's Wall Street Journal

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