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 West India hurricanes,” he concluded. Without satellites, without hurricane-hunting aircraft, without radio reports from seagoing vessels, the paths of hurricanes out of sight of land could be deduced only after the fact, when ships docked and reported the locations of their encounters.
Even whether a storm qualified as a “tropical cyclone” (the preferred term among forecasters of the era) was hard to determine. Cuban observers took the know-one-when-you-see-one approach, while the nascent American weather service pored over wind gauges and barometers and often drew wrong conclusions. So it was with the 1900 storm. Misreading the significance of a wind shift at Key West as a change of direction, the weather service believed that the storm was heading up the Atlantic seaboard; instead, it meant that the disturbance had become organized, with powerful counterclockwise winds. Just how little the service knew about the storm’s location is evident from the warnings it issued; they extended from Galveston all the way to Norfolk. Galveston would have no reliable advance warning of the storm until it awoke on the morning of September 8 to see great swells pushing the tide into the defenseless city, where the highest elevation was eight feet.
On that morning Galveston was the most important city in America between New Orleans and San Francisco, the largest cotton port in the world and the financial and cultural capital of Texas. By midafternoon, it was entirely covered by seething water and at the mercy of the ocean. Around six o’clock the storm surge rolled over the Island, a wall of water four to six feet high, destroying every building that still stood on the seaward half of the city. Not until midnight did the storm abate. Dawn broke over a grisly scene of bodies in the streets and debris everywhere, much of it piled into a massive barricade that ran through the middle of the city, halfway between beach and bay. Ten to fifteen feet high and thirty blocks long, it functioned as an impromptu breakwater, which saved the bay side of the city from annihilation.
No American city changed so much in a single day. San Francisco recovered from its earthquake, Chicago from its fire, Atlanta from its sacking by Sherman, but Galveston would never be the same. Its inland rival, perfidious Houston, seized on Galveston’s vulnerability to get authorization from Congress for a deepwater channel to be dredged in Galveston Bay that would bring oceangoing vessels to a safer harbor. Still, it is remarkable that Galveston recovered at all.
The first step was to dispose of the dead. Workers balked at handling the bodies, so it was decided to ply them with alcohol. Some seven hundred corpses were loaded on barges with weights affixed for burial at sea, but, as one citizen wrote, the plan went awry: “The sea as though it could never be satisfied with its gruesome work washed these bodies back upon the shore.” Instead, the corpses were piled—like cordwood, according to one worker—and burned, a process that took two months.
The biggest task was ensuring the safety of the city. This was accomplished by two engineering feats: the building of a seawall, financed by bonds issued by the city, and the raising of the grade level of the Island to meet the top of the seawall. Galveston became “a city on stilts”; the entire town—homes, office buildings, underground pipes, streetcar tracks—had to be lifted to the new grade level and supported with wooden pilings. A canal was constructed into the heart of the Island, and dredges brought sand from the Gulf to pump into the city. The only way to get around on foot was on elevated wooden catwalks above the reeking muck. Ten years after the storm, Galveston returned to normal.
BUT WHAT WAS NORMAL? The physical damage of the storm had been overcome; the wharves had plenty of business and the beaches teemed with tourists. The city was safer. The top of the seawall was seventeen feet above mean low tide, more than a foot above the highest level achieved by the storm surge. But the psychological damage remained. Galveston no longer believed in its own destiny. The diversified economy that had existed before the storm, including some manufacturing, was gone, never to return. Financial leadership passed to Dallas and Houston. Traffic at the wharves was almost entirely agricultural staples for export. Imports barely moved the needle. From the viewpoint of 1910, it must have seemed as if the storm had robbed Galveston of its birthright, and I accepted that notion for many years. But, terrible as the storm was, the city’s fate was sealed not by nature but by the railroad. Houston was on the main route; Galveston was at the end of the line.
The external wreckage of the hurricane had been repaired, but not the internal damage. The storm raged on in the minds of Galvestonians, battering their faith in their city into rubble. Even the leading citizens signaled their doubts; William Moody Jr., the wealthiest of surviving Galvestonians, declined to buy securities for the seawall, “threatening the entire bond issue,” according to one historian, who added that Moody waited to purchase some bonds “until risk passed.” Nothing changed after the hurricane of 1915, even though the seawall proved that it could protect the city against a major storm. Like a character out of a Tennessee Williams play—more Blanche DuBois than Brick Pollitt, I’d say—the town could not come to terms with its own faded glory.
By the twenties Galveston was content to slip into sweet decadence. It was overrun by tourists and run by mobsters. The town hated the former and loved the latter. Of the thousands who drove from Houston to spend a day at the beach, it was said, “They come down with a dirty shirt on their backs and a five-dollar bill in their pockets and don’t change either one.” (One thing the storm didn’t change was the Galveston attitude that Houston was one step removed from savagery.) But the mobsters, the Maceo family, were embraced by all, because they made Galveston matter again, even if it was through crime—shamelessly wide-open but thoroughly illegal gambling. The Maceos pioneered the formula that would be perfected by Las Vegas: good food, great action, and national-class entertainment. Their hangouts, the Balinese Room and the Hollywood Dinner Club, attracted Houston’s nouveau riche oil crowd, some of whom arrived with a police escort. Galveston was desperate to lose itself in the present, to forget its past.
The Maceo brothers, Rose and Sam, died in the fifties, and the Texas Rangers shut down the remnants of their empire. I was old enough by then to have an inkling that my hometown was a peculiar place. I listened to the radio while a candidate for mayor campaigned for open gambling and open prostitution. He won, of course. I noticed that nothing ever changed: no new buildings, no new coats of paint on old buildings, no new families to challenge the leadership of the Moodys, Kempners, and Sealys (who, though their line had been extinguished, commanded influence from the grave through their bank and their hospital), not even any new jokes. (Playing off of Galveston’s “half-streets,” which separated alphabetical avenues—R, R and a half, S—the jest was that if you lived on Avenue O, you had to go two blocks to P.) Everything seemed destined to fail. A minor league baseball team came and went. A bridge was built across Galveston Bay to nearby Pelican Island, in the hope of attracting industry. None came. My great-grandparents’ home, a handsome if weatherworn Victorian on Broadway that had survived the 1900 storm behind the wall of debris, became vacant when the last living offspring moved to Houston; no one wanted it. After a couple of years, it was demolished.
Most peculiar of all was the absence of any evidence that the 1900 storm had occurred. No museum told its story. No public monument commemorated the deaths of six thousand people. No historical marker recognized the event, and none would do so for another twenty years. Finally, in 1975, a marker took notice of the original seawall and the reason for its existence. The last sentence reads, “Freed from the threat of further destruction, Galveston has grown into a modern and prosperous city.” Neither half of the sentence, sad to say, is quite accurate.
THE TRUTH IS, Galveston did not want to be reminded about the 1900 storm. It had all the reminders it needed every time a storm developed in the Atlantic Basin. Television didn’t make such a fuss over hurricanes in those days, so Galvestonians anxiously followed their progress in the Daily News or filled in their tracks on hurricane charts. Like most families in Galveston, we were ready for the worst. Our home, some three hundred yards from the Gulf of Mexico, was a treasure trove of hurricane preparedness. A closet under the stairs was stocked with nonperishable food and a large jug of distilled water. Every room except the formal living room had a flashlight in plain sight and batteries nearby. The kitchen and every bedroom had a portable radio. Extra dishpans were located in bedroom closets, in the kitchen, and in the attic, in case the roof had a leak—or worse, a hole. Various drawers contained piles of candles, several boxes of matches, and more batteries. The linen closet had enough towels to serve a bathhouse. I looked at this inventory and knew its significance: If a storm headed for Galveston, we weren’t leaving. It was a matter of loyalty; to leave was to confess a lack of faith in Galveston.
Several storms brushed by the Island while I was growing up, but none was a direct hit. All of my youthful encounters with hurricanes involved squalls rather than the center of the storm; even so, the relentless power of wind and rain was enough to provide all the experience with hurricanes that I ever hope to have. Before my mother gave in and got outside storm blinds, wind-propelled rain coming in horizontally had an unobstructed shot at the windows. It probed for an opening between the bottom of a window and the sill, in wood that had become warped by years of exposure to the humid ocean air. We pressed towels against the bottom of the window to absorb the rain that managed to get through. It was amazing how quickly a towel would become soaked. I would wring out the water into one dishpan, toss the soggy towel into another, and start over with a dry towel. When a dishpan filled up, I took it into the nearest bathroom and emptied it into the sink. The main problem was that there were more windows than there were Burkas. Finally, the squall would weaken, and we would turn on a portable radio, get the latest weather report, and wait for the next squall. This could go on for hours.
At the end of the summer of 1961, Carla, a giant of a storm in both size and ferocity, approached the coast south of Galveston. I was already back at Rice University, waiting for the semester to begin, when my mother decided to leave the Island. She had gone to Houston to shop, and on the way home she saw that water from the marsh had crept alarmingly close to the level of the inbound roadway. The hurricane was still more than two hundred miles away. The possibility that egress could be cut off by rising water overcame her sense of loyalty, and she packed a suitcase and brought my sister right back to Houston. She wasn’t alone; Carla was the first time Galvestonians left in large numbers (almost a third of the population of 65,000). When she returned home, her decision was validated by the presence of dead fish in the front yard.
On my first visit to Galveston that fall, several weeks later, I was appalled by what I saw. The beach in front of the seawall was almost gone, lost to erosion. The buildings fared little better. Almost nothing was destroyed, but almost everything was damaged. Among the casualties was Ursuline Academy, one of the great works of Nicholas Clayton, the foremost Texas architect of the late nineteenth century and, of course, a Galvestonian. People said later that it could have been salvaged, but no one cared to try. Out with the old! It was razed and replaced with a bland building of no character. Doomed too was the massive Galveston County courthouse; it likewise was supplanted by a structure of little interest. To the civic leaders of the era, Galveston did not need reminders of what it had been but was no more.
What these people wanted—and I knew some of them—was progress. They regarded the aging but still imposing nineteenth-century buildings on the Strand, most of them cavernous and empty, as eyesores. They cringed when the novelist Edna Ferber likened their city to Miss Havisham, the abandoned bride in Dickens’s Great Expectations. Because they had always seen Galveston’s history as an impediment to progress, they couldn’t imagine that it could be a boon. It took Houstonians, coming from a town with ample progress but little tangible history, to see Galveston for what it was. In 1966 Houston architect Howard Barnstone published The Galveston That Was, with photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ezra Stoller, that put on display the lost glory of Galveston. The photographs captured the old homes and commercial buildings teetering between grandeur and decay. Even Galveston could not ignore its powerful, if unspoken, message: Having lost its greatness once, Galveston was about to compound its mistake by allowing history to repeat itself. Instead, the book spurred a historical preservation movement that saved Galveston’s soul.
It has even brought a little progress. Today, people come to Galveston for more than the beach, which—forgive the disloyalty, or maybe it’s just an old prejudice—isn’t much to look at anyway. The sand is more than several shades removed from white, and the water is an opaque green. They come to look at the grand old homes along Broadway and in the East End Historical District and to shop on the Strand, where the buildings that looked so dilapidated in The Galveston That Was have been restored. Pier 25, where my father ran a plant that made burlap bags for the cotton industry, is now a terminal for cruise ships. In the seventies and eighties, Houston oilman George Mitchell brought streetcars and Mardi Gras back to town, opened several new hotels, spearheaded many of the restorations, and—most important of all, for those of us who are “born on the Island”—affirmed his Galveston roots by drinking coffee in the morning with the old-timers. The biggest change has come on the west end of the island, where wealthy Houstonians have built million-dollar weekend homes. For the first time in 105 years, Galveston has a tax base.
But between the beach and the bay, Galveston resists change. It remains a city of frame houses, most of them raised on stilts for the hurricane everyone knows is coming and still in need of a coat of paint. In a way, I feel most at home in this part of Galveston, where the tourists seldom venture. I am fond of Austin, where I reside, and I have learned to respect and appreciate Houston, but they are large, complex, diverse cities that long ago separated themselves from their pasts. What I love about Galveston is that its past is neither out of sight nor out of mind. Galveston taught me that history is alive, that it has meaning, that it is something to be passionate about.
It has never stopped teaching. On the eve of the centennial anniversary of the great storm—September 7, 2000—history brought me back to Galveston. The occasion was a forum about the storm at the restored Grand 1894 Opera House, and from the stage I could not see an empty seat. I was one of six panelists, all of whom had written about Galveston—magazine articles in my case, books by the others. Each of us was to talk about our work and our assessment of the storm a hundred years later. I have no recollection what five of the panelists said, including myself, but I do remember Erik Larson’s presentation about Isaac’s Storm. Cline, the weather bureau chief, is still regarded as a hero among meteorologists because he had told his superiors in Washington that he had gone down to the beach on the morning of the storm and warned people watching the encroaching tide that a major storm was coming and to seek shelter. Cline reported that this had saved many lives. In his research, however, Larson had been unable to find any confirmation for this story; despite the many accounts of survivors, not one mentioned Cline’s role, and Larson believes Cline made it up to assuage his guilt over underestimating the severity of the storm and the terrible loss of life, including his wife.
After Larson’s presentation, questioners rose out of their seats and approached the stage, shouting angrily at him. How can you say such a thing? How can you impugn this great man’s reputation? They were Isaac’s descendants, coming to defend his honor. “I knew they would be here,” Larson told me backstage. “Whenever I speak, they always show up.” Don’t tell me that history isn’t alive.
The next morning, I walked across the boulevard from my hotel and down some stairs to the beach. It was nine o’clock, the time of Isaac Cline’s disputed journey a century before. I rolled up my pants, took off my shoes and socks, and waded into the surf. I stood there for a few minutes, wriggling my toes into the wet sand and trying to imagine the unimaginable. But the Gulf was at low tide. It just lapped at my feet, so placid, so treacherous.