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After Ike, to rebuild or not?

Coastal Texas now faces the classic question asked in the wake of other natural disasters.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2008

Inspecting the damage: Hurricane Ike blasted across Galveston before heading north, leaving thousands of destroyed and damaged homes and other buildings in its wake.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

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Galveston Island, Tex.

Wrecked sailboats and shrimpers litter Galveston Bridge. Pilings from 30 blown-away beach homes stick out of the water, the beach gone. The historic haunts where Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack once congregated – disintegrated by hurricane Ike.

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But safely ensconced behind a 10-mile long seawall built after a catastrophic 1900 hurricane, native Galvestonian Andrew Shelton took barely a lick from Ike. On either side of the seawall, however, a 12-foot storm surge claimed perhaps hundreds of recently built homes with beach access and million-dollar views.

The contrast, says Mr. Shelton, reveals the folly of an exuberant coastal policy that has allowed taxpayer-subsidized market forces to place some of the nation's most valuable real estate on the coast's most unpredictable perches.

"The irony of this storm is that rich people who built outside the seawall got wiped away and the lower economic classes who trust the seawall survived," says Shelton, whose great-great-grandfather, John Henry Hutchens, survived the 1900 hurricane, which killed more than 6,000 islanders.

As the unprotected West End neighborhoods of Galveston Island remained impassable, and news came that much of Bolivar Peninsula to the east, also unprotected, had borne the brunt of Ike's massive wall of water, questions are being raised about the storm's impact on coastal development.

"I think people are now going to weigh carefully their investments, whether it's in terms of industry, business, and government," says Heber Taylor, editor of the Galveston County Daily News, Texas' oldest continuously published newspaper.

With President Bush visit to the island Tuesday, it's a debate that's likely to focus on Galveston, where storm memories run deep in the island's colorful and multi-cultural heritage, and where recent decades have seen political and market shifts that seem to contradict the hurricane lessons learned, and still practiced, by many natives.

On the other side of the debate is the notion that coastal development is no riskier than building in wildfire-prone California hills or along Tornado Alley in Kansas, with few critics questioning the right of residents there to receive federal insurance and rebuilding aid.

Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with its $130 billion federal aid package, began shaping that debate in earnest, sparking deep reforms in required construction practices. In some beach towns in and around Galveston Island – including Bolivar, Rollover Pass, Crystal Beach, and Gilchrist – Ike may now define how Texas decides to draw both physical and philosophical lines on beach-building.