The differences between Galveston, New Orleans

Published 11:07 am Friday, October 10, 2008

I’ve been following more closely than most the impact of Hurricane Ike on Galveston Island.

There are several reasons for my interest. I used to work there. I have a daughter who lives about 20 miles north of the causeway that accesses the island. And our area is subject to the much the same storm dangers as those that threaten Galveston.

But at this point in time, just about the only way to check on what’s going there is to look at the website of the Galveston Daily Review.

Why is that? After a very, very similar storm hit New Orleans, the national media gave us a blow-by-blow for months… and months and months and…

My friend and former boss, Dolph Tillotson, president and publisher of the island’s newspaper, wrote about that last week. Here’s what Dolph wrote:

“A friend, who has been watching Hurricane Ike from afar, wrote: ‘I’ve been struck by the light coverage of post-Ike Galveston versus the non-stop sob-story after Katrina. Any thoughts?’

“I can think of at least three reasons why Galveston has faded quickly from the national news.

“First, reporters and everyone else really is more familiar with New Orleans. That old city in the eyes of many, including me, was a symbol of something unique in America — a sort of rumpled, down-at-the-heels elegance.

“In truth, Galveston is very similar, but not as famous.

“Everyone, it seemed, had been to New Orleans, and everyone mourned its losses.

“Second, I think official America — FEMA and the other federal agencies assigned to handle these disasters — truly is intent upon giving the appearance of success and having completed of the job.

“FEMA did a good job in the immediate days after Ike, helping to manage traffic, passing out supplies, tending to the immediate trauma of a terrible storm. The agency’s failures after Katrina and the election, just weeks away, have caused FEMA to do what President Bush did after American troops entered Baghdad.

“Remember? Bush landed on that aircraft carrier and proclaimed ‘Mission Accomplished.’ That was before we realized how far we were from accomplishing anything.

“So FEMA already is talking about withdrawing financial support for removal of debris at a time when that job is far from over. Galveston and the Gulf coast have months, even years, of grueling work ahead.

“I personally believe the progress over just three short weeks, mainly due to local efforts, has been remarkable. But we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.

“There’s another big difference between Galveston and New Orleans. I believe our people are different, and our leadership is different. Oddly, our general competence might work against us in the sympathy race.

“Instead of leaving Galveston’s most vulnerable citizens to perish in the storm or to languish in its aftermath, Galveston’s leadership got them out. Leaders in Galveston and Galveston County had a workable evacuation plan in place. And, though one could quibble about the details of some elements in the handling of the aftermath, local officials did a good job post-storm, too.

“In other words, we managed to not make disaster into catastrophe, which is what happened in New Orleans.

“Finally, I’ve been on the ground in Galveston since the Monday after Ike hit. I have not seen a single citizen of the city begging, demanding and weeping piteously for help from big brother.

“The general attitude seems to be welcoming to help from outside, but if it doesn’t come, we’ll find a way to make it on our own. Neighbor helps neighbor. People pitch in. Things get done. Hang the government.

“The people of Galveston have a special resilience and toughness about them. Perhaps that comes from generations of dealing with adversity. Fire, wind, water, disease and warfare have failed to dislodge the people of Galveston.

“My father-in-law lost his home in Ike. His grandparents survived the 1900 Storm and stayed to rebuild the family dairy. Ray says he’s coming back to the island, too, to start over at 77. He’ll do it, too.

“People like that don’t give up easily. Galveston won’t surrender.

“But it may be, for some reason, we aren’t quite as compelling on television, as some aggrieved somebody with a hand out, begging for help.”

David Sullens is president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications LLC and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.