GALVESTON — For Lyda Ann Thomas weathering storms — and their aftermath — runs in the family.
For that and for her service to the city Thomas has been named The Daily News’ Citizen of the Year.
After the 1900 Storm leveled Galveston Thomas’ grandfather I.H. Kempner led an unprecedented effort to rebuild and literally raise the city.
On Wednesday Sept. 21 2005 Galveston learned of an approaching storm that promised to be almost as devastating: Forecasters were predicting the city would be on the dirty side of a Category 5 monster packing 190 mph winds and throwing several feet of water over the Seawall and inundating the island.
Coming only weeks after Hurricane Katrina had devastated New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast city leaders were to put it mildly alarmed.
Minutes after they got their most fearsome briefing from the National Weather Service Thomas had to face a battery of television cameras and reporters from around the world.
”I think we were overwhelmed” she said. ”In my mind’s eye all I could see was Galveston in 1900 and New Orleans in 2005.”
But with hundreds of city workers and thousands of Galvestonians still on the island the mayor knew that the she couldn’t appear shaky in the face of the coming storm.
”I had to make a decision right then and there that the fear could not show” she said.
Thomas took her seat in the council chamber looked steadily into the cameras and offered her sober assessment.
”The news is not good” she said. ”We’re into an extremely dangerous period.”
It was in that and dozens of subsequent interviews as the news got better that Thomas became something of an international media darling.
Friends and family around the country called those still on the island to comment on how well Thomas had handled herself.
And the mayor didn’t just get points for style.
Even though Galveston was spared Rita’s worst the vast majority of residents heeded Thomas’ call to evacuate. They included thousands of poor and disabled residents — and their pets — who rode off the island on buses operated by the city and the Galveston Independent School District.
The effort stood in stark contrast to the way New Orleans took care of its most vulnerable residents when Katrina struck a few weeks earlier.
They were left to welter in the Superdome the convention center or their own attics.
Thomas got high marks all around for her performance during the hurricane but she’s quick to credit City Manager Steve LeBlanc and the rest of the city staff with helping the city through the storm.
Thomas was born in 1936 to one of Galveston’s grandest families. The Kempners were magnates in banking sugar cotton and insurance but they were also civic leaders.
I.H. Kempner helped to lead the city commission in the wake of the 1900 Storm and he helped to put together the financing the city needed to build the Seawall and raise the island. In 1917 he served as mayor.
Elder generations of Kempners saw their obligation to the community as extending beyond commerce infrastructure and elective office Thomas said.
”They were leaders in the community and they instilled in all of us the realization that there were people less fortunate than we and we should make an effort to give back to our community no matter where we live” Thomas said.
When she was 12 Thomas went with her Aunt Nonie to a facility sponsored by the Moody family for children with cerebral palsy.
”That’s when I became committed to children who were less fortunate than I — especially those with physical and mental challenges” Thomas said.
It was a commitment she wouldn’t forget.
After attending the prestigious Hockaday School in Dallas Thomas went to New York to attend Columbia University.
She worked at First National City Bank in New York and then in the direct-mail department at the women’s fashion store Lord and Taylor.
She also worked as an editorial assistant to the fashion editors at Harpers Bazaar magazine.
In 1958 Thomas married Jerry Redmond Thomas of Fort Worth. The couple lived in New York while they had their children — Taylor in 1964 Ian in 1965 Zachary in 1969 and Eliza in 1970. They divorced in 1978.
In 1973 when she moved back to Galveston Thomas began reinvesting in her native city.
First it was by starting Thomas and Co. which bought and restored historic buildings. That was at the beginning of the city’s historic renovation movement that is so much in evidence now.
”At the time I was the only one in the business that I know of” Thomas said.
In the mid-1980s as interest rates went through the roof Thomas got out of that business.
Then she opened The Bridge at 14th and Strand streets a halfway house for young adults with emotional disturbances.
After five years of operating the center Thomas found herself drowning in bureaucracy.
”The federal and state laws that were involved in this undertaking became overwhelming” she said.
So she found places for all her clients and went on to her next venture: She bought a boat and started Galveston Harbour Tours which played up both the historical and the environmental qualities of the harbor.
In 2001 she transferred the title of the boat to the Galveston Historical Foundation which continues to operate the tours.
In the midst of all that and true to her roots Thomas also got involved in Galveston’s civic life.
She was appointed chairwoman of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees in 1993 and she was elected to the city council in 1998.
In 2004 she was elected mayor with 60 percent of the vote.
Through it all she has made several issues hallmarks of her public career. One is keeping sand on Galveston beaches. Without it she and many others believe the city will lose its prime tourist draw — along with much of its character.
Thomas is also a big proponent of homeownership for low- and moderate-income families. Not only does it give them a stake in their neighborhoods it allows them to accumulate wealth in the form of equity.
And in keeping with some of her private endeavors historic preservation and the environment are high on Thomas’ list of priorities.
But it isn’t just where she wants to lead the city but also how she leads it that Thomas will be remembered for.
Through the often-fractious debate of a council consisting of seven strong personalities Thomas always tries to keep moving toward a consensus everybody can live with. In other words: leading.
It is a heritage that served her well during Rita.
”I knew from my own family history that I had to step up and lead the city” she said.