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Galveston, Texas, tries to rebound after Hurricane Ike

Here's a snapshot taken on a recent weekday morning in Galveston, Texas. Tanned surfers ride breaking waves. Souvenir hunters stroll past roadside shops. Sightseers pedal rented bicycles on the shoulder of Seawall Boulevard while hungry vacationers munch on blackened catfish and fried shrimp at beachfront eateries.

But the picture is marred by the seven-story Flagship Hotel, perched on the Galveston Island pier. The ornate, beige-and-red hotel stands as a reminder of the $3.6 billion in damage caused seven months ago when Hurricane Ike slammed into the island with 115-mph winds.

A gaping hole on one side of the hotel exposes rooms to the sun, and the concrete car ramp tilts precariously, as if it's ready to fall into the sea. A few hundred yards away, several splintered pillars are all that remain of the Balinese Room, a legendary oceanfront nightclub that, in its heyday, featured Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Duke Ellington and Mel Torme. The adjacent Hooters restaurant was also washed out to sea.

Despite these and a handful of other shuttered buildings, Galveston has reopened for business just in time for the spring tourism season.

The Flagship is one of only four of the island's 40 hotels that remain closed since the Category 2 storm tore through town, local business leaders say.

Across town, the island's most popular theme park, Moody Gardens, reopened its storm-damaged rain forest and aquarium exhibits in March. Also last month, crews at the nearby Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark reopened its 70,000-square-foot indoor recreation area after a six-month cleanup. Among the features added during the overhaul were free wireless Internet, a large palapa structure and a wireless wristband debit system that allows visitors to buy food without carrying cash or a credit card.

A week after the reopening, park spokesman Jeffrey Siebert said attendance has kept pace with previous years. "We've been pleasantly surprised by the number of people returning," he said.

Crews are now working to dump about half a million cubic yards of sand along the island's Gulf Coast shore to restore beaches that were washed away during the storm.

With 32 miles of sandy shore, Galveston has long been a top weekend destination. Before the storm, Galveston's tourism industry attracted up to 5 million visitors a year and generated nearly $800 million in revenue for local businesses. Although the visitor numbers are still down, Galveston business and tourism leaders are optimistic about a strong recovery as the peak tourism season begins.

The island's annual Dickens on the Strand festival, a celebration of the town's Victorian era, drew about 20,000 visitors in December, compared with about 30,000 in 2007. The island's Mardi Gras festival in February drew about 150,000 visitors this year, compared with about 200,000 last year.

To promote the community, the island's tourism bureau has recruited former President George H.W. Bush to appear in commercials that urge tourists to "come home to Galveston."

After the hurricane, the Port of Galveston, the embarkation point for hundreds of cargo ships and 600,000 cruise passengers per year, was overhauled to repair more than $45 million in damage, according to officials. About a week after the hurricane, cargo ships returned to the port. Cruise ships for Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruise lines reappeared less than two months later.

Lisa Velasquez, a secretary at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, regularly walks her dog around the island she has called home for 10 years and is glad to see a flurry of reconstruction projects.

Although many residents are still struggling to rebuild homes and wrestling with insurance claims and contractors, Velasquez said tourists who wander near the beach will find Galveston as warm and inviting as ever.

"There are no problems finding stores and restaurants, and the beaches are fabulous," she said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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