Hit by Hurricane Harvey While Still Feeling the Impact of Ike

To this day, Galveston, Texas, gets millions less in federal funding because of a 2008 storm. It's a cautionary tale of how long it takes to financially recover from disasters.
by | August 28, 2017
Woman surveys hurricane damage of her home.
Galveston, Texas, resident surveys her badly damaged apartment after Hurricane Ike in 2008. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

As Hurricane Harvey forces people in Galveston, Texas, to evacuate, its longtime residents are having déjà vu: In 2008, Hurricane Ike caused high-speed winds and flooding that left the island in the Houston metro area without electricity or clean water.

If there's one lesson that Galveston officials learned from Ike, it's that a major hurricane can cost a city long after the rain has stopped and the roads and houses have dried up. The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency echoed that point on CNN this weekend.

"This disaster is going to be a landmark event," FEMA chief Brock Long said. "We’re setting up and gearing up for the next couple of years."

Case in point: After Ike, Galveston lost more than 15 percent of its population, and the city fell victim to a quirk in federal rules that caused it to lose more than $1 million in annual transit funds.

Galveston depended on federal grants that go to communities with 50,000 or more residents. In the 2010 Census, the island's population dropped below that, changing its official transit designation to a "rural area." Recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the population back over 50,000, but Galveston has to wait until the 2020 Census for its status to be revisited.

If Hurricane Harvey causes the city's population to plummet again, the city will have to suffer another decade missing out on millions more in federal transit funds.

In July, Governing spoke with Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell about the long-term impacts of Hurricane Ike on the city's population and transit funding. He argues that the federal government should rethink the way it counts populations.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about Hurricane Ike's impact on Galveston.  

It flooded out 80 percent of the houses on the island. We lost a good chunk of our population after the hurricane. Our population dropped from 57,000 down into the upper 40s.

The most decimating part of that was the loss of our federal transit funding. A lot of it had to do with the timing of the hurricane, too. Had we had a hurricane immediately after the 2010 Census was taken, we wouldn't have lost a dime. Because a hurricane hit on the eve of a census, shame on us, we lost all of our funding.

Who uses the transit that the money funded?

Here’s the thing about Galveston. The federal transit [funding] was based on population, however, I have a couple million people here on any weekend. We’re a huge tourist destination, and transit is imperative not only to move tourists around but to move around the employees in the resorts and everything else. I have a major medical center on the island, which employs 13,000 people, and I’ve got to be able to move them around. So, basing it solely on population is kind of crazy. Just because our population declined, our employment didn’t decline.

In the short term, though, the state stepped up and helped us some. But we are now this year making substantial cuts in island transit because we finally lost the little bit of state money we were getting. The city can’t afford to run a full-blown transit operation servicing all the areas that we’ve been servicing without these federal funds.

The last two annual estimates from the American Community Survey say your population is just over 50,000.

Correct, and we think that’s actually a little low. There are different measures than just counting people in a census. I go to bed at night as a city manager with 50,000 or so sleeping on the island. By the time I wake up in the morning, I’ve got 75,000 because I have 25,000 in-coming commuters going to work in different industries on the island. The population in and of itself is not the right measure for Galveston.

How did the hurricane change the demographics of the island?

Most of the population we lost was either our elderly or our poor. Prior to the hurricane, Galveston was probably 40 percent Hispanic, 40 percent African-American and 20 percent Caucasian. Now, after the hurricane, we are pretty much 33, 33, 33.

We’ve lost some [low-income residents] since because we can’t keep providing the services that are needed, that being transit. When you rely on transit to get to your job, you’re not going to keep your job if you can’t get there.

Many things on the island were set up around island transit. A lot of the housing was set up around island transit. When you pull the plug, the ripple effects are huge.