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Preview: Can Galveston Rebuild Healthier After Disaster?

Julio Ostro and his daughter, Cesly. Photo by Jason Kane.

GALVESTON, Texas – To Julio Ostro, the empty feeling at the intersection of Avenue C and 16th Street tells more about his neighborhood than anything still standing there today.

After all, the fenced-off field of weeds and wildflowers on the northwest corner of this intersection used to be Magnolia Homes – a sprawling, barracks-style public housing project that was bulldozed after Hurricane Ike in 2008. It took buckling winds and nine feet of floodwaters to wash away almost everything that defined this corner of Galveston – the drug deals and street fights, the bands of children, the constant symphony of police sirens, catcalls, screaming and laughter.

(View a slideshow of the devastation and recovery efforts in Galveston:)

“That all changed after Ike,” said Julio, 21, looking toward the empty intersection from his home on Avenue C. “Things got real quiet after that.”

A similar silence echoes in pockets all over the east end of Galveston Island – a place that initially might look like it healed well after Hurricane Ike in 2008. That is, until you notice the patches of boarded up homes and shops – sometimes entire neighborhoods – that simply died after the storm.

When Ike charged up the Gulf in September of 2008, the Category 2 hurricane pulled the sea into Galveston Bay and then pushed it onto the back end of the island. That’s the side not protected by a 17-foot seawall and it’s also the side closest to the heart of downtown. By nightfall, muddy seawater had flooded 75 percent of the island, rising to the first-story ceiling of thousands of homes – including Julio Ostro’s.

Three weeks later, Ostro returned to find his bedroom caked in a thick layer of mud. The furniture could be replaced, but a lifetime’s worth of possessions – including his prized sketches – were warped beyond recognition.

“They all got messed up,” he said. “This whole place was just really ugly. Not a lot of people came back to live here.”

City health officials declared 569 units of public housing – including all of nearby Magnolia Homes – unfit for human occupation. They erected a chain-link fence around the perimeter of the complex and then proceeded to shovel the muddy contents of the homes onto the sidewalk. Several months later, Magnolia Homes was bulldozed.

To Julio’s younger brother, Juan, that meant the loss of an untold number of best friends. “They just never came back,” he said. “I don’t know where they are. I never heard from them again.”

Even so, the two brothers are interested in the rumblings that show something big may be around the corner for this neighborhood. Planners see the ongoing recovery efforts as an opportunity to make the city a poster child for “Building Back Stronger” – and healthier – after disaster. There’s a plan in the works to redevelop the empty field that was Magnolia Homes into a community of mixed-income houses sprinkled with commercial shops and restaurants – a set-up that could blend seamlessly with the surrounding historic structures. It might even serve as a bridge between the island’s medical campus and the Strand district downtown.

“It’s difficult to ever think of something so destructive as a natural disaster as being a good thing. It’s never a good thing,” said Lexi Nolen, director of the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities at the University of Texas Medical Branch on the island. But Ike provided a recovery opportunity that’s allowing Galveston to ask a key question about some of its notorious pockets of desolation: “How do we take this block and use it as a leverage to stimulate the whole neighborhood?” she said.

The Ostro brothers are skeptical. They’ve experienced a whole lot of activity – and then silence – at the corner of Avenue C and 16th Street. Three years after Hurricane Ike, they’re still waiting for something more.

Stay tuned to the PBS NewsHour in the coming days for Health Correspondent Betty Ann Bowser’s full report on Galveston’s experiment to build back healthier after disaster.

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