Today marks the 121st anniversary of The Great Storm that came roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 8, 1900, destroying this island city and ensuring its place in the history of calamity.
The story has been told many times over those many years of the wind and water and death brought by that unnamed hurricane, and the acts of courage and sacrifice played out during its fury.
What The Great Storm did to Galveston and its people is only part of the story, though. What the survivors did for themselves after the storm is inspiring and probably more relevant these years later.
So, today we’ll remember the many dead and celebrate those who survived, rebuilt and prospered.
As many as 12,000 people died during the storm, at least 6,000 of them on the island. More than 3,600 homes were destroyed and the added toll on commercial structures created a monetary loss of $30 million, more than $720 million in today’s dollars.
The Great Storm reigns as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. But while the storm was phenomenal, so was the response of the people who survived.
“Sunday morning, the day after the disaster, began with the sound of bells from the ruined Ursuline Convent calling people to worship,” historian David G. McComb wrote in “Galveston: A History.”
By 10 a.m. Sept. 9, Mayor Walter C. Jones had called emergency meetings and by the end of the day had appointed a Central Relief Committee.
Ignoring advice from its sister paper, The Dallas Morning News, that it move temporarily to Houston, The Galveston Daily News continued publishing from the island and never missed an issue.
In the first week after the storm, telegraph and water service were restored. Lines for a new telephone system were being laid by the second.
“In the third week, Houston relief groups went home, the saloons reopened, the electric trolleys began operating and freight began moving through the harbor,” McComb wrote.
Residents of Galveston quickly decided they would rebuild.
The two civil engineering projects leaders decided to pursue — building a seawall and raising the island’s elevation — stand today and are almost as great in their scope and effect as the storm itself.
It’s impossible to stand anywhere in the historical parts of Galveston and get exactly the same perspective a viewer would have gotten 120 years ago; everything is higher.
The feat of raising an entire city began with three engineers hired by the city in 1901 to design a means of keeping the Gulf in its place.
Along with building a seawall, Alfred Noble, Henry M. Robert and H.C. Ripley recommended the city be raised 17 feet at the seawall and sloped downward at a pitch of 1 foot for every 1,500 feet to the bay.
McComb wrote that some people even raised gravestones, and some tried to save trees, but most of the trees died. In the old city cemeteries along Broadway, some of the graves are three deep because of the grade raising.
The city paid to move the utilities and for the actual grade raising, but each homeowner had to pay to have their house raised.
By 1911, McComb wrote, 500 city blocks had been raised, some by just a few inches and others by as much as 11 feet.
The most apparent of Galveston’s efforts to prevent a repeat of the devastation is the seawall, which today runs from just past Boddeker Drive on the East End to just past Cove View Boulevard on the west.
The current span of just more than 10 miles was built in six sections in a period of almost 60 years.
McComb estimated it cost about $16 million to build the seawall and raise the grade.
It would cost $10 million a mile to build the seawall in today’s dollars — more than $100 million total.
While Galveston received financial help from the county, state and federal governments, a large part of the burden had to be carried by the city itself, at the expense of other projects.
McComb sums it up about as well as it can be:
“The public defenses against nature came at a high cost, but they succeeded for the most part. Its struggle for survival against nature through the application of technology represents the strongest tradition of Western civilization. Galveston’s response to The Great Storm was its finest hour.”
Today is a good day to reflect on those islanders of 1900, on how they pulled themselves up, resolved to carry on, took care of themselves and each other.
• Michael A. Smith