Congressman Ted Poe (TX-02)
In the book, “A Weekend in September,” my uncle, John Edward Weems, a noted Texas Historian, tells the tale of the deadliest natural disaster in American history. About this time every year as we are all glued to the weather, I think about this book and the devastation and the determination of people more than 100 years ago who had no warning. On the weekend of September 8, 1900, the hurricane, known to many as ``the storm,'' tore through Galveston during the dark of night taking everyone by surprise. The devastating tidal surge covered the entire island and forever changed the landscape of the Texas Gulf Coast.
At the turn of the century, Galveston was the showplace of the Gulf of Mexico, referred to by many as the “Jewel of Texas” and the wealthiest city in the State of Texas. On that weekend in September, as 40,000 residents and vacationers were bidding farewell to summer, weather forecasters were watching closely an unnamed hurricane brewing in the Gulf of Mexico. Having very little of today's weather forecasting equipment, the trackers lost the location of the storm in the gulf after it passed the predicted landfall of Florida.
What began as a tropical storm in late August, became a nightmare no one saw coming. It crept and covered the low-lying island. The island was barely above sea level at five to nine feet. There was no time for any evacuation.
The strong winds and rains ravaged the city. Houses were devastated and families were swept away. As the power and phones went out, people started wading through the murky mounting water. They sought shelter in downtown buildings and churches as the gale winds and incessant rain continued to increase.
Nuns in the local orphanage tied a roped around the waists of the children and unsuccessfully tried to lead them to higher ground. Of the 93 children and ten Catholic nuns, only three boys survived.
No one was prepared or adequately warned for this Category 4 hurricane that hit the city of Galveston . The force of the 140-mile-an-hour winds caused a water surge that covered most of the three mile by 30 mile island in minutes.
The nameless hurricane destroyed 3,500 buildings, over half of the city. The loss of life was staggering. It reminds me of the scripture of old, that the rains came down, the waters rose, and the winds blew and beat against the houses. But when the rains stopped and the wind blew no more, over 8,000 people had died. Hundreds more were never accounted for. Nearly everyone on the island knew a friend or relative who had perished.
Isaac Cline, a Galveston forecaster, never believed that the hurricane could ravage this paradise island. After the calm came once more, Cline described the storm's aftermath as ``the most horrible sight that was ever witnessed by a civilized people.''
When the hurricane finally moved inland, and it did not end its winds until it got to Canada, the task of recovery was overwhelming. Prisoners of the State penitentiary were used in the cleanup to find the dead, buried at sea, only to resurface on the beaches. Bodies were still being found in February of the next year.
The story of Galveston's hurricane is a story of death and devastation and ultimate determination. The survivors in Galveston were committed to protect their city in the future. They dredged the ship channel and the island was literally raised 17 feet by the dredging. It would be an engineering marvel even today. A massive sea wall was built to protect the city from future hurricanes. The economic loss, property loss, and loss of life had a serious impact on the coastal city.
Although the great storm in Galveston was extraordinary, those who survived and pitched in to help rebuild Galveston were just as extraordinary in their grit and character. Those brave Texans who survived faced the challenges head on, and eventually Galveston rose back from that murky mud.
With the more recent anniversaries of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina upon us and Gustav brewing in the Gulf, a reminder of life in southeast Texas is never far too far away. Unlike the devastating storm of 1900, the storms of the Gulf can now be somewhat predicted and followed – but they cannot be controlled. Because local TV news tends to sensationalize the weather, we lose interest in the warnings. Everyone needs to take a realistic approach to hurricane safety and always be ready. We are all in this together. When disaster strikes, we need to be on the same page in the hymnal, praying for the best and preparing for the worst.
That is just the way it is.