important coastal city is devastated by a powerful hurricane. Thousands
are believed dead. Bewildered survivors are left with no water, food,
electricity, transportation or communication. Looters prowl the ruined
community, stealing anything they can carry away. Fires rage out of
control, frustrated firefighters helpless to put them out. Survivors
swelter in the heat and humidity as they slosh through mosquito-infested
quagmires. Local officials plead for assistance as those who can leave
New Orleans, Biloxi, or Gulfport? No, Galveston
in the days immediately after Sept. 8-9, 1900, when a powerful hurricane
left the city in ruin.
Those who endured Hurricane Katrina’s August 29 blow to Louisiana,
Mississippi and Alabama can at least take some comfort in the historical
record: What happens in the aftermath of a hurricane is fairly predictable.
It is terrible, but conditions always improve in time.
But it never seems that way at first. A hurricane’s dying winds only
signify the end of the storm, not the end of the suffering.
The first book on the Galveston
storm (hurricanes didn’t get names back then) came out later the
same year the storm struck. Essentially a clip-and-paste job, “The
Great Galveston Disaster” by Paul Lester could not be called a great
book, but it offers good insight into the mindset of the people of
Galveston and the rest of Texas in 1900.
“Galveston’s stress and desolation grows with each recurring hour,”
a visitor reported to an unnamed newspaper a few days after the storm.
“Pestilence, famine, fire, thirst and rapine menace the stricken city.
Each refugee from the storm-lashed island [some of the journalistic
clichés have not changed in more than a century, either] brings tidings
which add to the tale of the city’s woes.”
The anonymous visitor painted a word picture that could just as well
describe the Big Easy these days:
“For four days the sun has sent down its fiercest darts. The results
may be imagined. Over the city hangs the nauseating stench of decomposing
flesh. Besides the humans there are thousands of carcasses of domestic
animals scattered through the devastated portions of the city. Galveston
is in need of everything that charity and compassion can suggest.”
And those needs clearly exceeded the ability of state and local government
to meet them.
“The situation demands federal aid,” said Maj. Lloyd Randolph DeWitt
Fayling, a former newspaper correspondent deputized to help maintain
order after the storm. “It demanded it from the very first…. The disaster
is so great and so terrible no municipal authority in the country
could be expected to handle it unaided.”
The federal bureaucracy had not yet grown to include the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA), but the federal government did provide funding
and regular Army troops to augment charitable efforts and the Texas
militia, forerunner of the Texas National Guard.
major difference between then and now, of course, is technology. The
first warning the weather bureau in Galveston received of an approaching
storm came only four days before the hurricane struck the island city.
Even then, no one had any idea where the storm would go once it entered
the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, thanks to satellites, radar and hurricane spotter aircraft,
the only uncertainty connected to a potentially disastrous storm is
the precise location it will make landfall. And the National Weather
Service is getting increasingly more accurate and predicting that.
Another significant difference between 1900 and 2005 will be the accuracy
of the body count. In Galveston, bodies had to be buried immediately
in mass graves or burned. Because there was not time to list them
all, estimates on the number who died in the storm and during its
aftermath vary from 6,000 to twice that.
Today, though the process of gathering the victims will be no less
horrid than it was at the beginning of the 20th century, 21st century
technology will make identification of bodies much more likely.
Finally, as surely as a community will recover from a disaster, history
also shows that in some way it will be changed.
it not been struck by the killer hurricane, Galveston
might have become the South’s New York City, an island metropolis
of towering skyscrapers with its residential neighborhoods sprawling
across the bay. Instead, the storm stunted Galveston’s growth.
One the plus side, the hurricane led to a new form of municipal government,
and brought about the construction of a massive seawall and an equally-huge
engineering project to raise the elevation of the entire city. In
subsequent hurricanes, that work has saved countless lives.
Invariably, some change is decidedly worse.
devastated by hurricanes in 1875 and 1886, was not big enough to bother
rebuilding following the second killer storm. The people of Calhoun
County voted to move their courthouse to Port
Lavaca, farther inland and on higher ground. Indianola
soon became a ghost town, drying up faster than a hermit crab pulled
from its shell.
New Orleans and the other devastated communities will endure, but
just like Galveston,
they are not likely to ever be the same.