Tiny Galveston Island is threatened by Hurricane Rita much as it was by another hurricane more than 100 years ago. In the first week of September 1900, before the advent of weather satellites or Doppler radar, there could be no detailed predictions about the storm’s path as it raged out of the Atlantic and grew more powerful over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But there were warnings from the Weather Bureau in Washington, insisting that Galveston’s 40,000 residents should find high ground. The highest available was in the center of town, less than 10 feet above sea level. Thousands headed there and increased their chances of survival. Thousands of others did not.
The 1900 hurricane, equivalent to a Category 4 (as Rita is now), slammed into Galveston in the early hours of Sept. 8. Then, as now, the ceaseless noise from the storm was maddening, a runaway freight train that wouldn’t stop howling through town all day long. Debris flew through the air. Stately trees snapped. Grand mansions collapsed into heaps of kindling. No anemometer survived to take accurate wind readings; gusts likely reached 200 mph.
The sea began rising. It swept into town. Slowly at first, faster later in the day, it was inexorable and terrifying. It was everywhere. By early evening, salt water stood 10 feet deep in the city center. Then it rose higher.
After witnessing the aftermath of Katrina, we can imagine what happened in 1900. Water picked up and then deposited houses, destroying neighborhoods and uprooting families. The next day much of Galveston was gone. When the waters receded, they left the smell of rotting corpses and a wasteland. Approximately 6,000 people died in Galveston as a result of the 1900 hurricane, unnamed because it took place a half-century before we began naming killer storms. The storm and its aftermath were called the worst “natural disaster” in the nation’s history, until Katrina hit three weeks ago.
That label was as misleading then as it is now. Why do we build urban centers in harm’s way, along fragile coastlines, below sea level, in the path of storms, or at the foot of slopes that collapse upon us? Most often because of the fantasy that nature offers greatness without sacrifice. For New Orleans, the lure was the far-flung rivers of the Mississippi system. For Galveston, a perfect harbor seemed to guarantee a future as a trade center.
Before Sept. 8, 1900, Galveston had every reason to believe that nature would make good on its promise. The city boasted the nation’s busiest cotton port and the third-largest port overall. Galveston was an elegant place, prosperous and promising, poised on the brink of its destiny.
A day later, the city was gone.
But Galveston refused to become a ghost town. It innovated and rebuilt. Workers using screw jacks raised the city’s remaining buildings by more than 10 feet in some places. It was an extraordinary and grueling process. What came next was more so. Laborers brought in more than 10 million pounds of sand to fill in the void that yawned beneath the raised structures and the earth below. Galveston became an elevated city, safer on its sandy perch above the tides of the Gulf of Mexico.
At the same time, Galveston vowed that it would keep future floods out of its rebuilt homes. The city constructed a massive seawall, a 16-foot-thick, 17-foot-high structure to stand between it and the Gulf. The seawall grew over more than six decades. It’s now more than 10 miles long. Like the Mississippi River levee system, it’s a monument to the human desire to control wild nature.
Galveston’s post-1900 landscape symbolizes the romance of a city rising from ruins. It’s more accurate, though, to think of it as an engineering marvel, a sustained act of will unprecedented in the nation’s urban history.
It’s also, in some important ways, a failure. Galveston never recaptured its lost commercial glory. It was quickly eclipsed by Houston, which was inland, safer, and closer to the rail connections and oil fields that became economically critical early in the 20th century. Today, Galveston is a beach town for Houston, a site of consumption rather than production.
In other ways, however, Galveston’s efforts have paid off. The city has survived the passing of countless storms, and it will weather this hurricane as well. The people of New Orleans—many of them forlorn and on the road again—may want to pause for a moment to take note of Galveston’s disaster history and present. As New Orleans rebuilds after Katrina, it must contemplate ways to make itself safer. At the same time, though, it should be wary because trade, the lifeblood of a commercial metropolis, always seeks higher ground.