THERE’S A PLACE ON THE HIGHWAY into Galveston where the sea stakes its claim to the land, where firm ground yields to a dense coastal marsh that spreads out untenanted on both sides of the road, and I know I’m home. Although the island city where I grew up has not yet come into view, its separation from mainland Texas has begun. Sometimes, if conditions are pleasant, I mark the passage by turning off the air-conditioning, opening the windows, and letting the clammy Gulf air whip through my car, carrying its familiar perfume of salt and decay. It is a ritual I often saw practiced by my mother as we returned from a day of visiting cousins in Houston. “Oh, that good Gulf breeze!” she would say. I think it was her way, as a loyal Galvestonian, of affirming her town’s superiority—if not in size and prosperity, then in climate and civility—over the city we had just left. But it was also a recognition that our proximity to the Gulf of Mexico was what defined us.
To live in Galveston is to have a personal relationship with the Gulf. One can be drawn to it or repelled by it but not dismiss it. I hated the grit of sand between my toes and the sting of saltwater in my eyes, so the beach held no allure for me. But at night I would open the window at the head of my bed and go to sleep to the melody of the ocean’s roar. Occasionally, when our family went out to dinner, we would drive home along Seawall Boulevard just as a full moon was rising out of the depths, huge and orange and close enough, it seemed, to snag with a fishing pole. It turned yellow as it floated into the firmament, casting a carpet of golden light upon the water, glinting all the way to the shallows.
At such moments it was possible to believe that harmony existed between land and sea, but I already knew the awful truth. When I was four, my father had taken me down to the Strand, known in Galveston’s heyday as the Wall Street of the Southwest, and pointed out a dingy smudge on an empty building. It was a watermark from the 1900 storm, he said. I did not know then that at least 6,000 people had died in the storm and countless more could not be accounted for from a city of 38,000 or that it was—and still is—the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. Nor did I know that my great-grandparents and my grandmother, still a young girl, had lived through the storm, or else I would not be here. I knew only that that smudge was impossibly high above my head. And so I came to learn that the Gulf carried mendacity in every molecule. Its beauty, its tranquillity, was all a lie. It had created Galveston, carved out its deepwater port, tempted us with the promise of greatness, and then betrayed us. Afterward, we had erected a mighty concrete wall to restrain it, but time was on the side of the attacker, and one day it would surely destroy us again.
I thought that day was at hand this summer. Hurricane Rita was in the Gulf, a category 5 storm churning toward the Texas coast. I live almost two hundred miles inland, and I haven’t spent a hurricane season on the Island since the sixties, but when a major storm is out there, I can feel the danger, lodged in my gut. I remember what the Gulf looks like when it is in turmoil; the horizon is all wrong, as if the ocean has heaved itself up to obscure a slice of the sky. My memory is imprinted with tracks of the great storms that have hit the Texas coast since man has been able to record their progress. Rita seemed particularly lethal. It was said to be headed for Matagorda Bay, where Carla, a devastating category 4 storm, had made landfall in 1961, but if it veered slightly to the north—which is what Katrina did in August, when it ruined New Orleans, and what the Florida hurricanes did last year—my hometown would be in the bull’s-eye.
“My house is going to end up in Texas City,” an old friend in Galveston told me when I called to ask how things were going. Rita was still three or four days away. He and his wife were getting ready to leave the Island, he said. He was moving furniture away from windows, covering it, struggling with plywood. Our conversation was cut short when his wife got on the phone. Panic had raised her voice by an octave. Please let him get back to work, she said. Please. The next day I watched on television as the Houston freeway system was overwhelmed by gridlock. I learned later that it took my friends almost 24 hours to get to San Antonio. By that time, Rita’s northward drift had begun. I couldn’t leave the television, with its panoramas of the beachfront I knew so well. Then came more news. The drift was becoming more pronounced, the storm weakening. Once I knew that Galveston was on the west side of the eye, the safe side, the tension dissipated. This was not the big one after all.
In the late nineteenth century, Galvestonians believed that their city, though situated on a sandbar two miles offshore, was safe from storms. Citizens referred to storm tides as “overflows.” Isaac Cline, the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau office in Galveston (and the central character of Erik Larson’s 1999 book on the 1900 hurricane, Isaac’s Storm), had written in the Galveston News in 1891 that tropical cyclones almost always followed a parabolic track that carried them west and then back east, long before they reached Texas. “The coast of Texas is according to the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere exempt from