As Hurricane Ike pummels the Texas coast, the only thing standing in the way is a thin stretch of land called Galveston.
Galveston is a barrier island, a narrow landmass made mostly of sand that extends along a coastline parallel to the land. These islands, common along the Gulf Coast and East Coast of the United States, are some of the most fragile and changing landforms on Earth. And they are particularly vulnerable to storms.
"Barrier islands are exposed to the open ocean, and the waves and storm surges generated by hurricanes," said Bob Morton, a geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. "As a storm makes landfall they're the ones that are going to receive the strongest winds and the highest wave actions."
National Hurricane Center officials have warned residents of Galveston to evacuate or else face "certain death," though several thousand are thought to be staying put.
Barrier islands like Galveston are particularly vulnerable to storm damage because they are made of sand, as opposed to the hard bedrock that underlies larger islands and the mainland. They also tend to have very low elevations, making it easy for water to wash over and submerge the island.
Many have questioned the wisdom of choosing to build on and develop barrier islands, given their risks.
"Every year there's reporting on the foolishness of building on barrier islands, but people are going to do it anyway," Morton told LiveScience. "We don't learn from the past. If you look at the barrier islands on the Mississippi coast in particular, after both Hurricane Camille in 1969, and Katrina, what did they do? They rebuilt. It's a perfect example of a coastal area that did get hit as bad as it can get, and they just go back and rebuild."
Barrier islands tend to be even riskier places to live than coastal areas, because they bear the brunt of any approaching storm impact.
"If you think about their location, they're basically lonely sentinels that serve as barriers for the mainland," said Clark Alexander, a marine geologist at Georgia's Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. "Basically you're in a vulnerable spot, because you're located where you get the first effects of anything coming in off the ocean."
Setting up residence in these vulnerable spots is particularly perilous.
"From a safety standpoint, it's silly," Alexander said. "Because the lifespan of a typical house is something like 60 years. But if you live on a barrier island, you can't guarantee you'll have land under your house in 60 years. It's trying to put something permanent in a place that's very dynamic."
As a result of Hurricane Katrina, a number of barrier islands off the Mississippi coast were completely wiped off the map. Even when storms aren't enough to raze islands completely, barriers often suffer severe damage from storms.
The 1989 Hurricane Hugo wreaked massive havoc on Pawleys Island in South Carolina. Isles Dernieres off the coast of Louisiana was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Often, after these storms, people move back and set themselves up for disaster again.
St. George Island on Apalachicola Bay off the Florida coast "has been washed away five or six or eight times and people just keep building back their houses," Alexander said.
For many people living on barrier islands, there is no amount of structural support that can ward off the worst.
"It's important to note that in the big storms, the category 4 or 5 hurricanes, it really doesn't matter how well-constructed your building is," said Orrin Pilkey, a professor emeritus of geology at Duke University, of homes on barrier islands. "And it doesn't matter whether you have a seawall or not. The chances are pretty good that if you have beachfront property, it's history."
Outlook for Galveston
Though Ike might not completely destroy Galveston Island, it could inflict major damage. Already Friday afternoon, the island was being pounded by high waves and flooding. How much depends on how the hurricane develops and what part of the island the eye of the storm passes over.
The eastern part of Galveston Island (also the more densely inhabited) has a strong 18-foot sea wall in place to deflect some of the incoming waves, so it should be more protected than the western half, depending on the extent to which the storm surge overtops the wall.
Galveston was hit hard by Hurricane Alicia in 1983, and was devastated by the "Great Storm" of 1900, when thousands died. After that disaster, a major effort went into fortifying the island against future storms.
"They went in and literally raised the city, propped up houses on stilts," Morton said. "They brought a huge dredge in from Europe and dredged up material and pumped it into the land to build it up. It was an amazing engineering feat for the time. No other place has done something like that." The city also erected a seawall.
Other well-known U.S. barrier islands include the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the islands along the Eastern Shore of Virginia, and even New York's Long Island (though Long Island's northern position makes it less vulnerable to storms than barriers in the Gulf of Mexico and southern Atlantic coast).
The ultimate fate of barrier islands varies, with many gradually retreating landward as eroded sand is pushed back to deposit in the lagoon behind it, and ultimately joining the coast. But some barrier islands with high dunes can avoid this fate.
Galveston is not yet migrating toward the coast, but is in what Morton calls a "narrowing stage," with sand on both sides of the island gradually eroding away. Many barrier islands wax and wane, with sand shifting around and sometimes reducing the land area, but most inhabited barriers are not at risk of being completely destroyed.
"Barrier islands are constantly changing," Morton said. "The barrier islands as a whole are some of the most dynamic landforms on the surface of the Earth."
These abuses stem largely from most people not carrying "Act of God" or natural disaster insurance. That means repairing damage caused by a hurricane comes out of their own pocket. To lessen the financial impact of the damage caused by a storm like Gustav, some unscrupulous homeowners will claim damage or missing items from their home by vandals, things that might be covered on a homeowner’s policy.
"There’s no question that things get damaged during hurricanes and there’s additional damage caused in the aftermath, like looting, vandalism and other illegal activity. But when somebody puts in a claim for five 48-inch plasma TVs and a treasure chest of Tiffany jewelry, you know something is a bit fishy and that’s usually where we come in," said Neal Lyons, chairman and CEO of L&W Investigations.
There are any number of red flags in a claim following a hurricane that can tip off insurance companies and their investigators of wrongdoing. Some of those include:
While many insurance companies employ special investigations units to examine these claims, the volume of cases, particularly in the aftermath of a hurricane, requires the assistance of private investigations firms like L&W Investigations. L&W conducts site inspections, interviews with neighbors and takes limited and comprehensive scope statements (recorded, if necessary).
"A hurricane can wreak tremendous havoc on a home and you feel a certain degree of sympathy for people, particularly folks who have to rebuild their homes from scratch. Yet that in no way justifies insurance fraud. Especially when you consider the costs associated with it run in the billions," said Lyons. "Does that mean every homeowner impacted by hurricane will try and take advantage of the circumstances. No, far from it. But with a price tag in the billions, it behooves the insurance companies to know if it’s a legit claim or not."
L&W Investigations works exclusively on workers compensation, disability, liability, auto and property claims. With its network of investigations offices across the U.S. and Canada, Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands, L&W boasts a client roster of more than 100 clients, ranging from insurance companies to third-party administrators, self-insured companies to law firms and municipalities.
L&W employs seasoned investigators who specialize in investigating insurance cases and claims. All L&W investigators go through extensive training and have access to the most state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. Among L&W’s offerings are: surveillance; statements; activity/disability checks; asset/background investigations; and medical audits/clinic inspections.
Not Your Everyday Investigations Firm
L&W Investigations, Inc. specializes in investigating insurance cases and claims. In addition to providing nationwide coverage, L&W investigators are highly trained specialists equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technologies and other advanced systems to provide second-to-none results and service. That includes online case status reports, video delivery by digital download or CD, DVD or VHS tape, rush services at no extra charge and much more.
L&W Investigations offices are located across the U.S. and the Hawaiian Islands as well as in Canada and Puerto Rico. Offices are still available and the company has set a manageable growth plan at 15 new offices per year.
Video - How a Surge Swamps Galveston
Animation shows the prediction of water level in Galveston, Texas, assuming a storm surge of up to 20 feet. The Water Level graph on the left indicates water level in feet, from 0 (normal sea level). Copyright 2005 3DNature.com.
INSIDE HURRICANE IKE - Amid the engines' roar, the Air Force Reserve pilots and navigator worked calmly as their huge plane neared the eyewall of Hurricane Ike.
The gray cloud, looming 50,000 feet into the sky like a colossal concrete barrier was four miles thick, and the Lockheed WC-130J was hurtling into it.
"It's a big one, and it's going to get bigger," said Lt. Col. Mark Carter, 54, a pilot who has chased storms for 31 years. "It's off land now and feeding on the warm water down there while it gets itself back together."
"Down there" is 10,000 feet below, where the swirling dark water and foaming waves of the Gulf of Mexico are only visible intermittently through the clouds.
Carter and his fellow Hurricane Hunters of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, were finishing a fourth trip across Ike during a 10-hour, 3,000-mile trek to monitor the storm taking aim at the Texas coast.
The aircraft carved a 210-mile giant "X" pattern through Ike and its eye, just off the western tip of Cuba.
"We're the only military aircraft that has permission to fly through Cuban airspace," public information officer Maj. Chad Gibson said. "We share the information we gather with them."
Using high-tech equipment aboard the $72 million plane, the crew gathers data on wind speed, barometric pressure and other information for the National Hurricane Center.
"The plane makes two observations a second," said Maj. Deeann Lufkin, 35, a meteorologist who stood behind a bank of screens as she monitored the storm.
Like everyone on the crew, Lufkin, of Northfield, Minn., is an Air Force reservist - a civilian who works summers with the Hurricane Hunters, based at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.
"I love this job," said Lufkin, whose husband also is a Hurricane Hunter. "It is endlessly fascinating, and it is also extremely important. We provide information the satellites can't get. And we provide something satellites will never have - a human eye and brain."
Working long and hard
The C-130, a workhorse of the U.S. military for nearly five decades, is a squat, broad aircraft, painted dull gray, with four black propellers curving over the wings like exotic flowers.
Inside, it resembles a high-tech auto mechanic's garage. Metal grids on the floor offer secure places to stash equipment, insulation covers most of the walls and ceilings, wires shake everywhere, red mesh behind the armless seats offer something to grab on to when the plane starts bucking and tilting in a storm.
Flights can run as long as 15 hours, not counting preflight and post-flight briefings.
Once ordered into a storm, the 10 crews made up of six people each fly on a rotating basis, 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
The flights go into everything from developing tropical storms to Category 5 hurricanes. But they don't fly into a storm over land because of the danger of tornadoes.
Since the flights officially began in 1943, only four Hurricane Hunter planes have been lost in the bump and grind through the clouds - the last in 1974.
It doesn't take much to draw out stories of the storms that have tilted the plane at dangerous angles, sent shudders down its metal spine and through its human occupants, banging untethered people against the ceiling as ride-along journalists scramble for plastic bags amid lurching stomachs.
Blair, who dozed in free in-flight moments with a copy of the book "Unholy War" spread across his stomach, was nonchalant about the Ike flight.
But he remembers others that were more eventful.
"Hurricane Charlie, what was that '03, '04?" Blair said. "That almost beat us to death. We made a pass through it as a Category 2, and 45 minutes later, when we went back through, it was a Cat 4. Every reporter on board had a bag up to his face."
The storms are most dangerous as they build or break apart, Blair said. That's when a potentially deadly microburst of wind and huge up-and downdrafts threaten the plane.
Dangerous or not, the flights, with their combination of boredom and adrenaline-pumping moments, appear to be addictive.
"I'm going to keep doing this until I get too old or my hearing goes," Blair said. "Then I'll just sit up in Picayune (Miss.) and drink beer and eat barbecue and dream about it."