Lyda Ann Thomas, the former Galveston mayor who became nationally known for her calm leadership during hurricanes Rita and Ike, died Wednesday. She was 80.
The cause of death was a rare form of cancer for which she had undergone treatment for three years.
Thomas was elected to the Galveston City Council in 1998, and was elected mayor in 2004, receiving more than 60 percent of the vote. She served three consecutive terms through 2010.
“She had an air of authority,” said Joe Jaworski, Thomas’ successor as mayor. “She was the head of the court, like a judge or a queen.
“But at the same time, she could be very disarming and kind. She was a hard act to follow.”
A child of one of the city’s founding families, she was known for her civic service.
Thomas became known as the “Hurricane Mayor” after shepherding the city through the threat of Hurricane Rita and the devastation of Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008.
“She was a stalwart,” said Galveston Mayor Jim Yarbrough, who was the Galveston County Judge during Hurricane Ike. “She worked hard to help the city in one of its darkest hours, she certainly will be remembered for that.”
Thomas rode out both storms on the island, and, as mayor, was the final word on many of the emergency management decisions made during and after the storms.
During Rita, which occurred less than a month after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Thomas appeared on national television, including on “The Today Show” and CNN, and calmly, coolly urged residents to evacuate the city ahead of the storm.
She was lauded for the handling of that storm, which didn’t bring the devastation that was initially feared.
It did, however, cause massive traffic jams farther north after Houston’s mayor ordered the city to evacuate too early. Ninety deaths were reported related to the evacuation. They weighed heavily on Thomas, according to a 2016 family history written by her friend, Elise Hopkins Stephens.
Thomas was not as quick to order a mandatory evacuation during Hurricane Ike in 2008. That, and an extended delay in allowing the return of residents to their homes, brought criticism from some corners. Thomas defended her actions, and pointed to the recognitions the city received for its emergency preparedness.
Upon her death, she was lauded for her leadership.
“She was an indomitable person,” said Harris L. “Shrub” Kempner, a Galveston civic leader and Thomas’ cousin.
“As a mayor she was just extraordinary in the way she handled the difficulties of Ike for the city. I think the city owes her a debt of gratitude that none of us will really be able to measure.”
Ten days after Ike hit, Thomas traveled to Washington D.C. to seek faster action from FEMA and other federal agencies.
“She was steadfast in her resolve to get Galveston back in order,” said former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was among the national leaders to come to Galveston at the Hurricane Ike.
“She was an incredible leader and should be credited with the phenomenal success that Galveston has become.”
After the storm, Thomas traveled the country teaching the lessons she had learned from the storm, and she worked to prepare the city to better deal with future disasters.
She also continued to seek recovery funds for the island.
“After Hurricane Ike, we went to the Houston-Galveston Area Council when they were deciding how much funding to give,” said Steve LeBlanc, who was Galveston’s city manager while Thomas was in office and during Hurricane Ike.
“We had to present our case. At the end of the day, we got $189 million in the first round, a phenomenal amount of money. She was so excited, she said, ‘Let’s go get a steak and celebrate.’”
But Thomas couldn’t find her car and thought someone had stolen it.
“She was so razor-focused on the presentation, she couldn’t remember where she had parked,” LeBlanc said. They finally found it.
“We laughed and laughed,” he said.
Lyda Ann Thomas was born Nov. 20, 1936, to one of Galveston’s oldest families.
The Kempners were magnates in banking, sugar, cotton and insurance, but they were also civic leaders.
Her grandfather, I.H. Kempner, helped lead the city commission after the 1900 Storm and he helped put together the financing the city needed to build the seawall and raise the island. In 1917, he served as mayor.
Thomas attended the prestigious Hockaday School in Dallas and then 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 & Taylor. She also worked as an editorial assistant to the fashion editors at Harper’s Bazaar magazine.
In 1958, she married Jerry Redmond Thomas of Fort Worth. The couple lived in New York while they had their children — Taylor, Ian, Zachary and Eliza. They divorced in 1978.
Thomas moved back to the island in 1973. Upon her return, she opened Thomas and Co., which bought and restored historic buildings. The company was on the vanguard of the city’s historic renovation movement.
In the 1980s, she opened The Bridge, a halfway house at 14th Street and The Strand, meant for young adults with emotional disturbances.
When that closed after five years, Thomas purchased a boat, The Seagull, and opened Galveston Harbor Tours. The company was later transferred to the Galveston Historical Foundation.
She championed efforts for the Galveston Historical Foundation to manage and buy the Bishop’s Palace, 1402 Broadway. The foundation bought the building in 2013.
In 2013, she was given the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Steel Oleander award, in honor of her public service.
She had received many honors in her life, including The Spirit of Elissa Award from Galveston Historical Foundation; The Community Enrichment Award from the Grand 1894 Opera House; the Pacesetter and Quality of Life Awards from Clean Galveston; the People of Vision Award (with her family) from Prevent Blindness; and the Brotherhood Award from Reedy Chapel AME Church.
The Daily News named Thomas Citizen of the Year in 2006 for her long community service and leadership during Hurricane Rita.
She served as a chairwoman and member of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees from 1993 to 1996, and was the president of the Harris and Eliza Kempner Fund, which funds arts, community development and environmental projects in the Galveston area and beyond.
Thomas often cited her family’s history of leadership and service among her reasons for serving the city so often and in so many ways.
“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 told The Daily News in 2006.
Funeral arrangements were pending on Wednesday evening.
Daily News reporter Valerie Wells contributed to this report.