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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tiago said...

I probably should not comment, but I see no other comments and that is sad. I’ve never lived near a large body of water such as the gulf.
I was born in the dust bowl of Oklahoma and raised there, in Kansas and in the Denver area of Colorado. We moved to the Denver area because of the tornadoes that swept through Oklahoma and Kansas. Except for the wall of water, the magnitude of destruction, there is little difference between a hurricane and a tornado. I’ve seen fence posts and trees that looked like they had fur, from the straw driven into them from the wind. But, not all the destructive force of a tornado is from the wind. The vacuum formed in the eye causes a building to implode.
I’ve lived the last 28 years in the ‘other’ Arkansas, (the Ozarks), and even here, the wind causes damage. Two years ago, wind damaged the State Capitol building. In fact, the wind damned near blew the whole trailer park away.

Unknown said...

tiago said...

I was born in the dust bowl of Oklahoma and raised there, in Kansas and in the Denver area of Colorado.

I was born in West Texas but never saw a tornado where I lived and went to school. Later, as a young adult, I lived in Wichita Falls, TX near the Oklahoma border. But --again, no experience with tornadoes. Nor, in El Paso, TX nestled as it between a mountain range in Mexico across the Rio Grande and Mt. Franklin on the US side.

I had relatives in Wichita Falls, however, who experienced and survived a killer tornado in the late seventies. It very nearly wiped Wichita Falls off the map. A brother-in-law, not wishing to see another home destroyed, actually built an underground home that was incredible.

Anonymous said...

I wish the good people of Galveston would stop sending a congressional representative (Dr. Ron Paul) who preaches self reliance, then takes Billions of dollars of federal aid for Hurricane relief.

I don't mind giving aid to a city that will be repeatedly assaulted by seasonal weather.

BUT, I resent the hypocrisy of moaning about federal money spent on people daily assaulted by poverty (aka people of color, see Ron Paul supporters, most notably Stormfront)

But Galveston has a long history of blaming and attacking the poor and people of color, from exterminationist white riots to the shunning the first black heavy weight boxing champion, native son Jack Johnson.

Maybe Ike is a Hagee/Robertson manifestation of god's displeasure with the racism and hypocritical libertarianism of the people of Galveston. I'm sure many folks in Galveston thought New Orleans deserved Katrina for their gay tolerance.

timking said...

I have some friends down in Texas that came through alright (both had trees fall on their houses but no one was hurt at least) but it looked pretty nasty. I'm sorry for all those that were hurt or worse and hope they get the help they need.

I've lived in Kansas (in a small town about a half hour south of Topeka now) for most of my life, so windy and tornado weather are par for the course. Any kind of what we call a 'bad storm' leaves people picking up trees around town. I remember once several years ago I was cooking on the grill on the deck and a tornado came by only about a mile away from here, but I never heard it because of the continuous thunder and sirens were never set off. I'm glad I don't live close enough to any coast though, hurricanes surely don't look like any fun.

Unknown said...

tiago, since you mentioned that your 'post' was not for post, perhaps, you will forgive if I reply to some general comments. Indeed, your mention of Mt. Franklin brought up a lot of memories. The 'scenic drive' that curves around the Southern end of Mt. Franklin offers a magnificent view of El Paso and, more distant, Juarez just across the Rio Grande. There are few urban views to equal it, perhaps the view of Rio from Sugar Loaf. It certainly compares with views of L.A. from Mulholland. Some people 'diss' El Paso. But I found it to be much, much less conservative than Houston, laid back, and, at the time, the cost of living was very low. But, so were salaries, I suppose. I have no idea what the economic stituation is now. Like all base towns, I am sure that when the US military raises pay, prices locally will increase. I lived north of downtown, between Mesa Dr and the mountain itself. I used to enjoy climbing around on the mountain. Some of the best restaurants were in Juarzez. when I was there, they were flying lobster in from Maine. It was simply world class. There was also a great Chinese restaurant on Montana Blvd (as I recall).

As I recall, there were several plans to divide Texas up, One of them, I think, wanted to carve it up into as many as five separate states. Lately, I have toyed with the idea of restoring Texas to Mexico. The US claim to Texas was alwas dodgy and remains so. The land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande is, I belive, still disputed. The 'Republic of Texas' had claimed all land between the Rio Grande and the Arkansas River but made no attempt to occupy the western most region. México staunchly refuted Texas' claims, insisting that the Rio Nueces was the legitimate border between the two nations.[see: Rivalry Along the Rio Grande: War with Mexico]

Many of those settling in Texas wanted to create a slave state. Indeed, the empresario, Stephen F. Austin, lobbied the Mexican government for an exemption from Mexican laws which had forbade slavery since 1824. Given the direction of the US under GOP domination, Texas would fare better as a part of Mexico. At least, in Mexico, the rights of the individual are addressed AT THE VERY BEGINNING of the Constitution of 1910. In the US the 'Bill of Rights' was almost an after thought and Madison insisted upon drafting them himself when he was convinced that the Constitution would not be ratified without them. Interestingly, believing that it was the Mississippi River, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salleqv, sailed up the Nueces in 1685. Such were the accuracy of maps of the period.

feckless said...

Galveston has a long history of blaming and attack the poor and people of coler...Maybe Ike is a Hagee/Robertson manifestation of god's displeasure with the racism and hypocritical libertarianism of the people of Galveston.

I won't presume to know how God expresses 'His' displeasure, but what you say about racism and hypocrisy is true of Galveston, Houston, indeed, most of Texas, which, by the way and because of Bush's 'sterling' leadership as Gov, beat out Mississippi in education. I would not have expected the 21st Century to have resembled so closely the 19th. Was nothing learned in some 100 years? Give the GOP another 8 years and it will have reset the calendar to the 18th century.