By Mary Baswell
For Reporting Texas
The Weather Research Center’s 2012 hurricane season outlook predicts a quiet storm season for the Texas Gulf Coast — potentially good news for Galveston’s newest tourist attraction.
The Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is set to open May 28, Memorial Day. For the last four months, construction crews have worked around the clock to build Landry’s $60 million, state-of-the-art amusement park atop the pier at 25th Street and Seawall Boulevard, one that promises visitors a quarter-mile of carnival rides, food, games and entertainment facilities.
The sounds of jackhammers and concrete trucks have inundated the city since January. Kent Brashears, owner of Galveston Gallery, a local craft gallery located just up the road from the construction site, referred to the noise as “growing pains” but said the park will generate more tourism and sales tax revenue, both highlights of its appeal.
The outlook is definitely good news for storm-weary Galveston, the unfortunate record-holder for being the most frequent target for Gulf Coast hurricanes. But Troy Kimmel, chief meteorologist at KEYE-TV and manager of the Weather and Climate Resource Center at the University of Texas at Austin, warned that though this year’s outlook puts Texas at a lower risk than usual for tropical weather, no forecast is foolproof.
“There is scientific skill in these outlooks, but it ain’t gospel,” he said.
The Research Center, which collaborates with Kimmel’s Resource Center, predicts only a 30 percent chance of Texas encountering a direct hit from a hurricane. While the news no doubt has Galvestonians sighing in relief, Landry’s CEO, Galveston native and recent billionaire Tilman J. Fertitta is no stranger to doing business in the eye of the storm.
Already a hospitality leader across the nation with four casinos in Nevada and Mississippi and the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio under the Landry’s umbrella, Fertitta also currently operates a number of entertainment venues along the Texas coastline, including the Kemah Boardwalk, the San Luis Resort, and Galveston’s Rainforest Café and Saltgrass Steak House.
According to Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, Fertitta’s latest venture will add to the city’s tourist appeal.
“Our new motto is ‘Stay an extra day and play,’ so the park, as an actual tourist destination, will complement the attractions we already have, offering visitors at least three full days’ worth of activities,” he said.
Jaworski also called construction of the park a metaphor for the city’s “rise from the ashes” after bearing the brunt of Hurricane Ike in 2008. But with Ike’s storm surge still a fresh memory for many residents, the Pleasure Pier’s location seems especially risky.
The park’s foundation juts out 1,130 feet into the Gulf of Mexico and was once home to the Flagship Hotel as well as Galveston’s original 1943 Pleasure Pier. Both former structures succumbed to hurricanes—the dilapidated Flagship to Ike and the Pleasure Pier to Carla in 1961. Ike also destroyed the pier’s historic neighbor, the Balinese Room.
Despite Galveston’s history being marred by the deadliest, costliest and most intense storms in the last 112 years, Brashears said he believes that with the city’s “stringent code enforcement,” there should be no “undue problems.”
Fertitta, too, seems unfazed by the potential threat to the park.
“That’s why you pay high insurance premiums and you just don’t worry about it,” Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle in January.
Jaworski agreed that beachfront investments come with higher risks. “It’s just a commercial cost of doing business,” he said.
Kimmel said while he doubts anything built on the pier will last forever, residents of coastal towns have come to accept the possibility—and the reality—of hurricanes.
“It may be another 10 years before we see another strong hurricane on the upper Texas coast. Or it may happen this year—we just don’t know,” he said.
Brashears echoed the uncertainty of hurricanes in Galveston.
“There’s always damage during a storm, but hopefully there won’t be one anytime soon,” he said.
The Research Center’s 2012 outlook places the highest risk for tropical weather affecting the Gulf Coast between Louisiana and West Florida. It also predicts a total of eight named storms, with five reaching hurricane strength and three making landfall.
In the Research Center’s 27-year history, its outlooks have an 89 percent accuracy rate. The 2012 Atlantic Hurricane Season begins June 1.
As Fertitta’s multimillion-dollar gamble nears completion, the optimism grows in Galveston, even if its somewhat tempered by experience.
“So Fertitta, being a hometown boy … has determined to take that over and rebuild it, I think, in the image of the Rainforest Café or something exotic like that,” Brashears said. “But it’s going to generate lots and lots of tourism and lots of money and sales tax revenue for Galveston.”
Jaworski hails the pier as “the punctuation at the end of the sentence saying, ‘Galveston is back and better than ever.’”
The same was said about the Flagship Hotel when it was built in 1965 response to the devastation of Carla, four years earlier.
The odds—at least, this year — seem to be in Galveston’s favor.