Nation's Worst Storm, in 1900, is Galveston's Legacy

9-22-05 - As a point of pride, native Galvestonians like to refer to themselves as BOI - Born On the Island.

It's a way of making them stand out from those who have chosen to flock to this 30-mile-long by 3-mile-wide strip of sand along the southeast Texas coastline.

And for the 50,000 people who call the island home, there are other names - names of hurricanes - that are defining moments in their lifetimes: Carla, Alicia, Claudette, and now perhaps Rita, churning in the Gulf of Mexico as a dangerous Category 5 storm and likely heading for landfall on the Texas coast.

The defining moment for Galveston itself, however, occurred 105 years ago this month and carries no person's name.

It's known simply as The Great Storm of 1900.

The storm secured Galveston's place in history as the scene of the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States. At least 6,000 people were killed, one-sixth of the city's population. Another 10,000 were left homeless. More than 3,600 buildings were destroyed by a nearly 16-foot storm surge pushed by 150 mph winds.

Two years later, construction began on the Galveston Seawall, a nearly 11-mile-long, 17-foot-high ribbon of granite. Elevation of the island was raised to the height of the seawall.

The wall, so far, has done its job.

"It is impressive and has given the stamp to Galveston that we think of when we consider what Galveston is all about, which is mainly a tourist getaway," said Baylor University history professor T. Michael Parrish.

Galveston, however, has grown beyond the wall.

"I don't think there's going to be a house left," Lucy Micklitz, 42, said as she moved clothing from her home at Pirate's Beach, a development where dozens of homes stand on stilts right on the beach but lack the protection of the seawall.

She and her husband were supposed to sign off on a loan Wednesday to begin construction of a new house nearby. Instead, the work crew hired to plant pilings for the new house was putting boards over the home they now rent.

"It's scary," her 17-year-old daughter, also named Lucy, said. "I don't know if I'll see my friends again."

Fears like hers turned to sheer terror on Sept. 8, 1900.

"The horror of that time I can never describe," survivor Daisy Thorne Gilbert, a Galveston teacher, wrote to a friend in a letter included in author John Edward Weems' 1980 book about the storm, "A Weekend in September."

"A mountain of water would come rolling toward us and we would shudder, thinking our little room couldn't stand another shock. Walls would creak and groan; the wind shrieked. We could hear nothing else... Then the wave would roll on, and our little room still stood."

On Wednesday, with the images of Hurricane Katrina's destruction still fresh, hundreds of people converged on a community center where officials directed them to city-provided buses that took them to the safety of shelters far inland.

"I hope we have something to come back to," said Cindy Weidner, 42, holding her 5-month-old daughter, Anna, as they waited to board a bus.