My Frail Island

Looking for lessons in the wreckage of Galveston.
Photograph by Misty Keasler

To grow up in Galveston is to carry inside of you the realization that everything familiar, the sum of your memories and experiences, could be wiped away in a few furious hours. Most of the time, this sense of dread lies dormant, but when a major hurricane reaches the Gulf of Mexico, the anxiety manifests itself physically. It doesn’t matter whether you are on the Island or far away. I was high and dry in Austin on the day that Hurricane Ike approached my hometown, but my stomach was churning as if I were in my boyhood home, three blocks from the seawall.

I was right to worry. Ike was a terrible storm. That it was just a category 2 was deceptive. What really mattered was that it was as big as a category 4 or 5. It covered almost all the Gulf of Mexico: six hundred miles from front to back. As it approached the Texas coast, its southern flank undermined a seawall on North Padre Island and carried off half a million cubic yards of sand, while its backside eroded beaches in Florida and uncovered the wreck of a Confederate blockade runner in Mobile Bay. A storm of such magnitude moves unimaginable amounts of water before it, forming a dome of destruction in the front-right quadrant. This is the storm surge, the most damaging aspect of a hurricane. Propelled by 110-mile-per-hour winds, the surge poured up the Sabine River and left people who had been through Rita just three years ago stranded on rooftops in Bridge City and Orange. It rushed ashore on the Bolivar Peninsula, practically wiping it clean of beach homes and leaving it isolated, reachable only by boat. Driven by the wind into Galveston Bay, it crested over the low western bank into the defenseless towns of San Leon, Bacliff, Kemah, Seabrook, and La Porte.

As I spent the night watching the news, I thought Galveston had escaped the worst. The predicted 20- to 25-foot storm surge, which would have topped the seawall, never materialized. The actual surge was about half that. What I had failed to take into account is that what goes into the bay must come out. When the eye passed over Galveston and the counterclockwise winds blew in from the north, a wall of water headed for the city from the rear, where no seawall could intervene.

Imagine sitting in a bathtub and moving back suddenly, forcing the water to rise behind you and then spill past you toward the drain. One eyewitness at the Moody Gardens hotel complex told a colleague, who told me, that the wave was about eleven feet high. It rolled through the bay, tossed boats around like chopsticks at a marina near the causeway to the mainland, plowed through Offats Bayou and across the airport, and smashed into prime residential property in the west end of town. The houses here were supposed to be safe, protected by the seawall, but the torrent of water—properly called a seiche—came from the opposite direction. It rolled on toward the seawall, finally spending its force on youth baseball fields and leaving dead vegetation pasted to the top of cyclone fences nine or ten feet high. I heard a story about a man who had gone into a bathroom to urinate and found himself in chest-deep water before he could finish.

People who do not live in Galveston may wonder why so many stayed in harm’s way even in the face of a massive storm that covered most of the Gulf of Mexico. For some, staying was the default option. Others could not afford to leave or had nowhere to go. Still others—perhaps 20,000—stayed by choice. They fear more for Galveston than they do for themselves. Those in my mother’s generation regard evacuation as an act of disloyalty, providing evidence impugning the safety of the city to a skeptical world. She left only once, for Carla, a category 4 hurricane, in 1961, and only then after getting the blessing of friends to depart.

To lifelong residents and sympathetic expatriates like me—we identify ourselves by the acronym BOI, for “Born on the Island”—Galveston is more than a spot on a map. It is the central character in a tragic drama that has played for more than a century. The story line goes like this: On the morning of September 8, 1900, Galveston was the most important city in America between New Orleans and San Francisco, with a business artery, the Strand, that was known as the Wall Street of the Southwest. Before the next sunrise, the city lay in ruins, battered to smithereens by the sea, with a fifth of its almost 40,000 citizens dead—still the worst natural calamity ever to befall an American city. The greatest damage was done by a sudden four-foot surge (atop water that already covered Galveston fifteen feet deep). A telegram sent not long after the storm passed began, “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.”

An awareness of vulnerability and a sense of glory lost have been unwelcome squatters ever since. After the storm, citizens debated over whether to rebuild or move to the mainland. The most prominent families on the Island chose the former, sending one of their own, I. H. Kempner, to Austin to lobby for aid. Texas had a statewide property tax at that time, and Kempner persuaded lawmakers to allow Galveston to keep its revenue for twenty years. This enabled the city to issue bonds that financed a grade-raising. Every surviving building had to be jacked up so that the Island could be elevated by five feet. Newly dug canals allowed barges to bring dredged spoil into the heart of the city, where

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