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Flashback: Galveston's great storm

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News website

The city of Galveston in Texas already knows what it is like to be in the crosshairs of a devastating hurricane.

Galveston after the storm
Most of the city was levelled during the great storm
It was almost wiped off the map by the great storm of 1900. The storm ensured Galveston's place in history as the scene of the worst natural disaster in the United States.

The city was levelled by a Category Four hurricane and more than 8,000 people were killed. But, thanks to the will of residents to keep the community thriving, Galveston was rebuilt in what was considered to be a feat of engineering.

More recently, the story of Galveston provided inspiration to some residents of New Orleans, which was battered by Hurricane Katrina.

Boom town

At the turn of the century, the 30-mile-long by three-mile-wide strip of sand along the southeast Texas coastline was a booming metropolis with a population of some 42,000 people.

It was known as the Wall Street of the South, with a thriving shipping and financial centre. It had also become the largest cotton port in the country.

It was one of the wealthiest cities in Texas.

Galveston after the storm

Physically, however, the city was vulnerable. It had been founded in 1839 on a low, flat sand-bar type barrier island.

On 8 September, 1900, an unnamed hurricane made landfall on the island, levelling the city with 130mph winds and flooding it with 15-ft waves and sweeping homes away.

More than 8,000 people were killed, most drowned or crushed. Corpses were later piled onto carts for burial at sea, although many were washed back by the current. Funeral pyres were set up wherever the dead were found and burned for weeks after the storm.

In the scope of its destruction, Hurricane Katrina was comparable with the storm that hit Galveston.

Commentators have asked whether there are lessons to be drawn from Galveston's story - in the vision, resolve and spirit of its turn of the century residents.

The decision to rebuild Galveston after the great storm was made quickly. There had been a lot of investment in the area and it was the only deep-water port on the Western part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Defences

Isaac Cline, Galveston's Weather Bureau chief and the focus of a book about the hurricane called "Isaac's Storm" told officials two weeks after the disaster: "Notwithstanding the fact that the streets are not yet clean and dead bodies are being discovered daily among the drifted debris, the people appear to have confidence in the place and are determined to rebuild and re-establish themselves here."

Two years later, residents signalled their determination by voting to issue bonds to build a massive defensive seawall.

The disaster was seen as a historic opportunity to change the city's vulnerability to hurricanes. A commission of engineers came up with a three-point plan for rebuilding the island - including erecting a sea wall, raising the island itself and raising parts of the city of Galveston.

A 10-year engineering project saw a mighty, seven-mile concrete seawall being erected (this was enlarged to 10 miles) and the grade of the city being raised by up to 15ft. At the time of the storm, the highest point in the city of was only 8.7ft (2.7m) above sea level.

Mud was dredged from the Gulf of Mexico and used to raise the city and more than 2,000 buildings were jacked up. And all this was done with pretty primitive technology.

However, despite the rebuilding, the great storm did contribute to the city's economic decline. Over the decades, it went from a bustling commercial centre to more of a sleepy tourist destination, with the industrial thrust of the commerce shifting north to Houston.

Shortly after the great storm, residents did set about rebuilding the city's tourism industry. Hotels and nightclubs were built behind the new 17-ft seawalls and tourism thrived for decades.

Galveston was showing the world that it was no longer vulnerable.

However, in 1961 the city was hit by Hurricane Carla. The seawall held storm surges back but tornadoes went over the wall and devastated some areas of the city. The damage was mainly psychological - the city lost its new sense of invulnerability.

Now, commentators are asking whether Galveston's defences will be enough to withstand a category five storm if it hits. It is widely thought that despite the sea wall built to defend the island and despite being higher up than it was in 1900, a high storm surge is likely to go right over the wall and flood the island.



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