By Forest Riggs
One-hundred seventeen years ago, the Great Storm of 1900 rose out of the Gulf of Mexico and wreaked havoc on the small, bar island of Galveston. Thousands died, and the landscape, including stately structures and rows of ornate houses, were stripped barren in places and lined with stacks of rubble, death and despair.
September 8, 1900 became the “milestone” in the lives of all involved. From that day forward, time and life was categorized into two stages: “before the storm” and “after the storm.” Life would never be the same for anyone touched by the disaster.
In 2000, author Erick Larson began his iconic novel Isaac’s Storm with a simple telegram:
Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union
Do you hear anything about Galveston?
Willis L. Moore,
Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau
Were present times as simple and communications over long distances still conducted with the telegraph, in the past weeks, we might have seen this same message with the same haunting implication, with only the date changed.
Hurricane Harvey, almost dismissed by many as a small storm that “…might intensify to a tropical storm…possibly a Category 1 or 2 hurricane…rain…winds…” came ashore August 26, 2017, down around Matagorda and Rockport, bringing with it tornadoes and destruction. Arriving as a Category 4 storm, Harvey danced around, moved slowly, returned to the Gulf and again came ashore leaving a path of flooding and tornadoes. Other than some street flooding and downed limbs, Galveston was spared!
As with any hurricane or tropical storm, the long, spiraling “bands” of winds and rain, came and went throughout the next couple of days and nights, frazzling
everyone’s nerves and stamina.
Galvestonians and neighbors were inundated with calls, emails, texts, tweets and Skype chats from all over the globe: “Are you ok?” “Are you safe?” “Is it bad there?” “Do you need anything?” and so on and so forth. People were genuinely concerned as Galveston, since the 1900 storm, has always been the point of reference for any storm that enters the Gulf of Mexico.
Most islanders responded, “We are OK, some heavy rains, winds and mild street flooding…have seen the worst of it.”
But sitting off the upper East Coast was Tropical Depression No. 10. It refused to give way and allow Harvey to move out of the Texas Coastal area. Harvey continued to pull moisture from the warm waters of the Gulf and, without mercy, dump it on the Houston and South East Texas area.
“One of the worse disasters ever” the news channels would say, and even Washington, D.C. agreed.
“Texas has been WALLOPED” one headline read and, for a change, all of Congress agreed, saying, “Texas has suffered a horrific disaster that calls for unity…a test for our humanity.” Indeed! Not much humanity in Congress these days!
The most remarkable thing, other than the power and volume of water that flooded the state, was the genuine caring, helping and resilience of the Texas people. Strangers helped strangers—black, white, gay, straight, religious, atheists, even Democrat and Republican. It takes a storm! The overflowing willingness to help, raise money, rebuild, risk one’s life for the rescue, safety and well-being of others, was readily noticed and touted by visiting dignitaries and news persons.
NBC’s Lester Holt, while standing in waist-deep water in Dickinson, said, “I have never seen such an outpouring of people wanting to help.”
That speaks volumes about us folks down here along the Gulf Coast. We have our differences and we have issues, but when something like this storm strikes, we put aside those things and reach out to help each other. We know what to do. We do it! We have done it, time and time again. The old phrase is, “This is not our first rodeo!” and this is so true for Texans and Gulf Coast residents. Sadly, it won’t be our last, either.
In the days following the storm and flood, people and agencies from all around the country came to the aid of Texas. One person from Ohio told me, “You know, Texas is a national treasure; if it hurts, we all hurt.” How wonderful, I thought.
Perhaps Galveston’s favorite pal and meteorologist Frank Billingsley said it best while on the air: “Houstonians and Texans are good and strong people, full of love and giving, and Harvey is not gonna take that away!”
Watching the news and seeing our neighbors suffer so much loss and pain, Galvestonians collectively felt guilty that again, our beautiful island home had been spared such another disaster, while our neighbors, friends and families nearby, suffered so terribly. Grateful, humbled and saddened, we watched so much of Houston, the “playground in Galveston’s backyard,” and its beautiful eclectic mix of peoples from all over the world, suffer this tremendous blow. Indeed, when one hurts, we all hurt.
Texans are strong, definitely resilient and not ones to just lay down and give-up.
We are already showing the rest of the country this is how we roll. As we wade through this period of rebuilding and repairing our lives, let us hope and learn from each other that we continue to draw strength, courage and the will to make a positive difference.
Forest Riggs, a resident of Galveston is no stranger to the adventures of life. A former educator and business owner, he enjoys Island life and all that comes with it. He says he is a “raconteur with a quixotic, gypsy spirit.” Forest has written for several newspapers and magazines as well as other writing pursuits, including a novel and collection of short stories.