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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Galveston 1900

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

An important coastal city is devastated by a powerful hurricane. Thousands are believed dead. Bewildered survivors are left with no water, food, electricity, transportation or communication. Looters prowl the ruined community, stealing anything they can carry away. Fires rage out of control, frustrated firefighters helpless to put them out. Survivors swelter in the heat and humidity as they slosh through mosquito-infested quagmires. Local officials plead for assistance as those who can leave town.

New Orleans, Biloxi, or Gulfport? No, Galveston in the days immediately after Sept. 8-9, 1900, when a powerful hurricane left the city in ruin.

Those who endured Hurricane Katrina’s August 29 blow to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama can at least take some comfort in the historical record: What happens in the aftermath of a hurricane is fairly predictable. It is terrible, but conditions always improve in time.

But it never seems that way at first. A hurricane’s dying winds only signify the end of the storm, not the end of the suffering.

The first book on the Galveston storm (hurricanes didn’t get names back then) came out later the same year the storm struck. Essentially a clip-and-paste job, “The Great Galveston Disaster” by Paul Lester could not be called a great book, but it offers good insight into the mindset of the people of Galveston and the rest of Texas in 1900.

“Galveston’s stress and desolation grows with each recurring hour,” a visitor reported to an unnamed newspaper a few days after the storm. “Pestilence, famine, fire, thirst and rapine menace the stricken city. Each refugee from the storm-lashed island [some of the journalistic clichés have not changed in more than a century, either] brings tidings which add to the tale of the city’s woes.”

The anonymous visitor painted a word picture that could just as well describe the Big Easy these days:

“For four days the sun has sent down its fiercest darts. The results may be imagined. Over the city hangs the nauseating stench of decomposing flesh. Besides the humans there are thousands of carcasses of domestic animals scattered through the devastated portions of the city. Galveston is in need of everything that charity and compassion can suggest.”

And those needs clearly exceeded the ability of state and local government to meet them.

“The situation demands federal aid,” said Maj. Lloyd Randolph DeWitt Fayling, a former newspaper correspondent deputized to help maintain order after the storm. “It demanded it from the very first…. The disaster is so great and so terrible no municipal authority in the country could be expected to handle it unaided.”

The federal bureaucracy had not yet grown to include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but the federal government did provide funding and regular Army troops to augment charitable efforts and the Texas militia, forerunner of the Texas National Guard.

One major difference between then and now, of course, is technology. The first warning the weather bureau in Galveston received of an approaching storm came only four days before the hurricane struck the island city. Even then, no one had any idea where the storm would go once it entered the Gulf of Mexico.

Today, thanks to satellites, radar and hurricane spotter aircraft, the only uncertainty connected to a potentially disastrous storm is the precise location it will make landfall. And the National Weather Service is getting increasingly more accurate and predicting that.

Another significant difference between 1900 and 2005 will be the accuracy of the body count. In Galveston, bodies had to be buried immediately in mass graves or burned. Because there was not time to list them all, estimates on the number who died in the storm and during its aftermath vary from 6,000 to twice that.

Today, though the process of gathering the victims will be no less horrid than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, 21st century technology will make identification of bodies much more likely.

Finally, as surely as a community will recover from a disaster, history also shows that in some way it will be changed.

Had it not been struck by the killer hurricane, Galveston might have become the South’s New York City, an island metropolis of towering skyscrapers with its residential neighborhoods sprawling across the bay. Instead, the storm stunted Galveston’s growth.

One the plus side, the hurricane led to a new form of municipal government, and brought about the construction of a massive seawall and an equally-huge engineering project to raise the elevation of the entire city. In subsequent hurricanes, that work has saved countless lives.

Invariably, some change is decidedly worse.

Indianola, devastated by hurricanes in 1875 and 1886, was not big enough to bother rebuilding following the second killer storm. The people of Calhoun County voted to move their courthouse to Port Lavaca, farther inland and on higher ground. Indianola soon became a ghost town, drying up faster than a hermit crab pulled from its shell.

New Orleans and the other devastated communities will endure, but just like Galveston, they are not likely to ever be the same.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" September 8, 2005 column

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