Storm Without End
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“One of the most awful tragedies of modern times has visited Galveston. The city is in ruins, and the dead will number possibly 6,000. The wreck of Galveston was brought about by a tempest so terrible that no words can adequately describe its intensity, and by a flood which turned the city into a raging sea.” So read one of the first dispatches from the stricken city after the hurricane of September 8, 1900. It was no exaggeration. The sea had risen up and engulfed Texas’ loveliest, wealthiest, and most important city. At the height of the storm’s fury, Galveston lay submerged at depths ranging from seven to fifteen feet, not counting waves taller than houses that few structures could withstand. A century later, the 1900 Storm, as it is known in my hometown, remains the worst natural calamity ever to wreak its havoc on the United States.
The storm’s damage was not limited to life and property. When the great tropical cyclone moved on, it took with it Galveston’s era of greatness. Officially the hurricane lasted for around seven hours, from mid-afternoon to an hour before midnight. In the collective mind of Galveston, however, it rages on. The sense of loss, of what might have been, lingers in the air, unseen but unmistakable, as suffocating as the humidity on a sweltering summer day.
In the Galveston of my youth, more than half a century after the storm, no one spoke of their ordeals. Galveston of that era was a place where friends called on each other to sit in formal living rooms and make conversation in which children were expected to participate, or at least sit and listen—but I cannot recall a single personal narrative of the storm. It was alluded to, especially during hurricane season, but even my grandmother and great-aunt, who were old enough to remember the storm, revealed nothing. What Galveston wanted was to obliterate the memory, even to the point that merchants with high-water marks on their buildings were urged to expunge them.
Understandably, no one was eager to revisit the awful day, when houses crumbled and thousands were cast into the sea, when every man, woman, and child in the city was certain that they were going to die. The day had begun normally enough. A hurricane was known to be somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, but forecasting was in its infancy then, and the precise location was unknown. Neither the barometer nor the wind direction nor the sky suggested that disaster was on the way. In any case, Galvestonians were used to overflows, as storm tides were known locally—the island had no seawall then—and saw no cause for alarm in the great swells rolling in from the sea. Weather forecaster Isaac Cline (the main subject of Erik Larson’s 1999 book about the Galveston disaster, Isaac’s Storm) and his brother Joseph knew better; they noticed that the waters were advancing up the beach despite oppositional winds from the north, an unprecedented phenomenon. That morning people went to work as usual or took the streetcar to the beach to watch the angry surf.
Among those who ventured out was the future Hollywood director King Vidor; years later he wrote about the scene: “I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as the telephone poles. Higher. My mother didn’t speak as we watched three or four waves. I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea . . . I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.”
At midday seawater was creeping into the city from two sides, pushed from Galveston Bay by the winds and from the sea by the tides. By four in the afternoon Galveston was experiencing hurricane conditions. People struggled against the winds and chest-deep water to get home, some to be killed by pieces of lumber or shingles that flew through the air like missiles. Amusement buildings and dwellings along the shoreline were disintegrating. Bay water met Gulf water and Galveston slipped beneath the sea.
As debris from destroyed buildings accumulated, the storm used it as a battering ram to assault the next line of houses, and the next, and the next, adding more mass with each pummeling wave. “A mountain of water would come rolling toward us,” wrote one survivor in a letter to a friend, “and we would shudder, thinking our little room couldn’t stand another shock. Walls would creak and groan; the wind shrieked. We could hear nothing else. All would give up. Then the wave would roll on, and our little room still stood.” Every decision was a lottery of life and death: what building to seek shelter in, what floor, what room. To stay downstairs was to face encroaching water; to go upstairs was to risk getting crushed by falling beams. When houses were swept off their pilings and plunged into the torrent, only those who were situated where they could climb out a window and cling to some flotsam had a chance to survive.
By midnight the storm had passed, and the next morning the living emerged from their battered homes to look upon a panorama of near-complete devastation: the ocean covering what once had been two hundred yards of island and beach; another strip several hundred yards wide that had been swept clean of any sign of habitation; the rest of the city strewn with rubbish and bodies, with countless more concealed inside of piles of lumber and other trash. “[P]erhaps you have read accounts of it and seen pictures of the wrecks,” another letter writer advised, “but if you put them all together and multiply the awfulness of it by ten, you will have but a faint idea of it all.”
There was another reason why no one in Galveston wanted to talk about the 1900 Storm: It was the skeleton in the civic closet. To speak of it ran the risks of scaring off tourists, frightening residents into moving to Houston (as they had by the thousands in the weeks following the storm), and discouraging outside investment in Galveston. So comprehensive was this mutual pact of silence that the Galveston Daily News barely mentioned the fiftieth anniversary of the storm. It mattered not that the city since 1911 had been protected by a seawall, funded by bonds issued by Galveston County, and by a civic project of astonishing scope—raising the grade level of the island by jacking up every building in the city and pumping sand beneath it. The rebuilding of Galveston was a magnificent technological feat, capable of shutting out the sea, but nothing could shut out the sense of vulnerability from people’s minds.
Even as a child I could sense it. Every room in the house had one drawer filled with candles and matches, flashlights and batteries, awaiting the moment that the power might go out in a storm. A portion of the pantry was stocked with canned goods so old that some of the brand names no longer existed, just in case another flood left the island without a reliable food supply, as had occurred in 1900. We never threw away old pots; we kept them in storage to capture water that might pour in through a damaged spot in the roof and drip through the ceiling. And towels! We had enough to supply a small hotel. They served as makeshift dikes to keep the rain—propelled in horizontal sheets—from forcing its way under a door or between window and window frame.
The 1900 Storm had taken away from Galveston the essential belief of any successful society that today is better than yesterday and tomorrow can be better than today. The community spirit and broad-based leadership that was characteristic of pre-storm Galveston and had accompanied the rebuilding of the city began to dissipate once the island had been fortified against the sea. Galveston continued to be a busy port until cotton production moved to the Panhandle, but never again would it be one of Texas’ major cities. It turned inward, and the liveliest conversational subject in town to this day remains why. Was the 1900 Storm primarily to blame? Or did the storm merely hasten a decline that was inevitable in a new century in which agricultural goods and water transportation would be less important than oil and railroads, the linchpins of the economy of Houston, Galveston’s onetime rival? Or did the emergence of post-storm peculiarities—insularity, economic dominance by a few leading families that feuded with each other, four decades of embracing wide-open, though quite illegal, casino gambling—constitute a second, more subtle Galveston disaster?
My belief is that even had the 1900 Storm never occurred, Galveston would resemble the seductive, eccentric, somewhat quaint town it is today rather than the bustling economic center it was a century ago. The island on which it sits is just a sandbar in the sea, too small and too frail to support a great city. Unable to devour the island in a single swallow, the ocean now devours it foot by foot. Beyond the western end of the seawall, erosion from storms far milder than the 1900 monster has allowed the beach to march inland, threatening private homes that once were high and dry. In front of the seawall, a thin strip of beach replenished with imported sand awaits its certain fate. The equation that a city on a barrier island must live with is that you can’t protect the people behind the shoreline without doing harm to the shoreline.
As the centennial of the storm approached, Galveston found itself bypassed once again. The nation was absorbed with a story of the ocean in upheaval, of the forces of nature raging out of control, but it was not Galveston’s story. It was Hollywood’s. The Perfect Storm was the depiction of a tragedy, but it was a tragedy that the mind can accept. Those who leave the safety of their home to invade the ocean do so knowing that they are venturing into hostile territory. But on September 8, 1900, the normal order of things was reversed: The ocean became the invader, and the home was no longer safe. That is what Galveston can never forget and why the 1900 Storm has been one without end.