Tuesday, September 16, 2008

When the Sea Walks Over the Land

History, they say, repeats itself. But always with a variation. On September 8, 1900, before hurricanes were given names, the city of Galveston was slammed by the 'Storm of the Century'. A 17 foot wall of water seemed to have just risen up to walk across a thin sliver of land, in truth little more than a glorified sand bar. Driven by winds of 135 mph, it submerged the island city and laid waste to all houses but those of the very, very rich. Those houses still dominate the atmosphere and personality of Galveston.

Over the last week, Ike threatened to relive the experience of some 100 years ago. There were many echoes of the past but significant differences. Modern Galveston, as a result of its 1900 experience, built a protective 17 foot seawall to protect the city against another storm surge of such biblical proportions. The nature of a storm surge was explained best in a line of dialogue from the Bogey/McCall movie Key Largo: "The wind blows so hard the ocean gets up on its hind legs and walks right across the land."

A storm surge is, literally, the apogee of a huge wave formed by high winds and low pressure. It is as if the ocean literally rises up and moves landward with the storm accompanied by high winds and pounding rain. There are few natural events more exciting than a hurricane; even fewer are so deadly.
Rescuers saved nearly 2,000 people from waterlogged streets and shredded houses in Galveston.

"Quite frankly we are reaching a health crisis for the people who remain on the island," said Steve LeBlanc, the city manager in Galveston, where at least a third of the community's 60,000 residents remained in their homes - refusing to leave.

Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas pleaded with those residents who left last week not to return right away.

"Do not come back to Galveston," the mayor said. "You cannot live here at this time."

Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, was under a week-long dusk-to-dawn curfew to prevent looting.

Energy provider CenterPoint Energy reported power was restored to 500,000 customers, but more than 1.6 million remained in the dark, including Houston's big corporations.

Mayor Bill White said all city workers were expected to report to work, but most corporations told employees to stay home.

--Devastated Galveston tells residents their town is unlivable

The Worst of Ike

In Houston, I slept through many tropical storms and a hurricane or two. Some important points must be made. I never lived in what the locals call a "flood plain"; I never lived within sight of the Gulf; I never tried to sleep through storms of the magnitude of Andrew, Rita, or Gustav.

My very first experience with a hurricane was Audrey which struck the coast and seemed to gain strength even as she struck deep in the Piney Woods of SE Texas. Audrey had reached Category 4 status in June and went on to cause 'catastrophic damage across eastern Texas and western Louisiana'. I was a child but still remember clearly incredible winds of some 75 miles MPH striking deep inland, ripping branches off oak and pine, slamming them into parked cars and houses. A window was blown out. Heavy oaken furniture was blown across the room.

It is appropriate that the name 'Audrey' is now retired. Audrey left in its wake 600 dead and 1 billion dollars in damages, the sixth deadliest US hurricane since accurate record-keeping began in 1900. There was nothing like Audrey until Katrina swept into New Orleans in 2005.

What is so striking is that Ike, Audrey of 1957, and the unnamed storm of 1900 all seem to have made 'landfall' between Galveston and the Texas-Lousiana border. We may be justified in calling it Hurricane alley.

If you wish to imagine what it might be like to survive the first impact to find yourself inside the eerie 'eye of the storm, there is probably no better read than Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson. Galveston was not taken completely by surprise. City 'fathers' were, indeed, aware of the island city's vulnerability. There were no barrier islands to protect it against the sea and sky. Galveston put its bare face against the Gulf.

Instead of warning the residents of Galveston, instead of lending his support to efforts to float bonds for the construction of a seawall, meteorologist Isaac Cline, instead, wrote an article in 1891, in which he characterized the fear of hurricanes as an 'absurdd delusion. He claimed that rising surgewaters would spread first over the vast lowlands 'behind Galveston which, he claimed, were even closer than Galveston to sea level. "It would be impossible," he wrote, "for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city."
At the competing Galveston Tribune, editor Clarence Ousley spent Saturday morning writing his editorials for the Sunday editions. He looked out the window at the harsh sky, patches of blue still showed, but mostly he saw clouds a black and low as any he had ever seen. The storm seemed a good subject for comment. Off and on that morning had called home for reports from his family on the condition of the surge, which his wife and children could watch from the windows of the second floor. It was very exciting --storms always were --but he did not think this one would be terribly different from any other.

--Eric Larson, Isaac's Storm
As the storm approached Galveston, the rains increased. Many sought refuge at the train station. An elderly man produced a barometer and insisted upon reading out the descending atmospheric pressure periodically, a practice that did not endear him to his fellows.
No one else seemed terribly worried either. Galveston apparently took such things in strike.

The first 'intimation' of the true extent of the disaster, Benjamin recalled, "came when the body of a child floated into the station."

--Eric Larson, Isaac's Storm
It is not only the Gulf Coast states of the US that are threatened by hurricanes. In 1703, an "extratropical hurricane", believe to have originated in the Atlantic east of Florida, struck the great city of London.

Though it has been called 'the perfect hurricane', it is atypical. It was reported to have crossed the 'cold Atlantic'. Storms associated with SE US are believed to be nurtured by warm Gulf water. Otherwise, decriptions of London's storm read very much like a descriptions of Ike or Andrew moving right up the Houston Ship Channel. The storm wreaked havoc upon some 700 ships, moored in the 'Pool of London'. The Royal Navy lost 13 war ships. The death toll was staggering --as high as 15,000. Queen Anne sought refuge in the cellar at St. James Palace'. Lead roofing was blown off Westminster Abbey. Like Andrew and Ike over the lowlands north of Galveston, TX, London's storm moved northward over the Midlands. In his very first book, The Storm, Daniel DeFoe wrote of "...the tempest that destroyed woods and forests all over England. No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it."

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