On September 8, 1900, the terrible hurricane known as The Great Storm struck Galveston and, by all accounts, leveled the island. The Playground of the South had been hit and hit hard.
What started as a peaceful Saturday with stormy skies slowly turned into an afternoon filled with building winds, increasing darkness, and driving rains falling from turbulent blackened storm clouds. Citizens scrambled to get home, to get to family, to get to safety. The birds had become silenced and practically hidden. Horses and cattle were restless as if they knew something terrible was coming. Meteorologist Isaac Cline had tried in vain to warn Galvestonians but no one seemed to take him seriously. By his own calculations, he knew that a massive storm was on the way; it had already devastated the tiny island of Cuba and was now taking aim on Galveston.
That infamous day 120 years ago played out and the results became history. The Great Storm has been written about in books, immortalized in first-hand accounts, and even made into movies. “The worst natural disaster to hit America” is how the storm was billed over years.
There is much debate as to exactly how many persons perished in the storm. Figures range from six thousand to upwards of 12 thousand, or more.
When the sun broke through on the early morning of September 9, Galvestonians crept from their damaged structures and gathering places to a macabre scene that would forever scar the minds and hearts of those that survived the onslaught. Buildings were gone, neighborhoods were wiped out, and bodies were strewn among the carnage. Crying searchers called out for their missing friends and family members. The heat was intense and it took no time for the stench of death to permeate the post-storm Gulf air. Bodies were gathered, stacked, and burned, with some put on barges and pushed to sea only to wash ashore due to the heavy wave action.
Days and weeks passed. Though Islanders are resilient by nature, the storm was almost too much for the citizens to comprehend. Aid in various forms came to the island, albeit slowly. But it came. America felt it had been dealt a horrible blow; the beautiful “New York of the Gulf” had been raped and lay bleeding in a tortured scene of death and destruction.
With effective leadership and guidance, Galveston rose from the piles of rubble and loss to rebuild. A safer and stronger plan was enacted to raise the grade of the tiny island by building a giant sea wall that would protect it from future storms of this magnitude. In the heat mingled with blood and sweat, homes were rebuilt, the school reopened, and life went on. Like the legendary Phoenix in myth, Galveston rose from the ashes and pushed forward in an attempt to regain some form of “normalcy” for life as it was. Though never actually quite the same, the resolve of the Galveston citizens led them through the aftermath of the storm and enabled them to rebuild, repair, and step into the 20th century.
One hundred twenty years later, the Island is again facing a terrible storm. The COVID-19 virus, causing a worldwide pandemic, has placed a pall or blanket over the usually bustling island. Though not physically destroying structures and tangible items, it is destroying Galveston’s businesses, tourism, and its usually jovial spirit.
With stores, bars, and restaurants closing, locals feel a part of them is slowly dying. Known for play and “hanging out” with each other, the pandemic has crippled the social scene on the Island. The throngs of LGBTQ community members long to see each other, greet one another with a hug, embrace and touch, and, most of all, feel alive again.
The questions on every pair of lips range from “When will this end?” to “Will our clubs and restaurants be able to re-open?” No one knows when things will get back to normal, if ever. Inside every person, there is hope, the same hope that rebuilt after the Great Storm in 1900. Galvestonians are known for their strength and unrelenting effort. The people of the island rally in bad times and like that Phoenix, they rise above the rubble and soar forth.
The Great Storm of 1900 was not predicted and pretty much came like a thief in the night. Some knew that something was up; Cline did his best to warn folks to seek higher ground and take precautions. This storm, the COVID-19 pandemic, was known and there was time to prepare, though some scoffed and called it a “hoax.” While we waited for leadership and direction, the winds of the pandemic grew strong and swept over the land. Like the storm of 1900, thousands died around the country, suffered, and lost so much that had once made life normal. One hundred twenty years later, Galvestonians face yet another Great Storm, only this one lingers and shows no sign of slowing. There is a great battle to wear a mask or not and the virus itself has become political. This is the worst kind of storm to weather. When human beings take sides, things go awry; we see this daily in the news and on the streets.
The Storm of 2020 is much like the Great Storm of 1900. It came, did its best to destroy life and change the way people live. September 9, 1900, began a new day and new adventure to rebuild and regain what was lost in the howling storm. For Galvestonians today, the day will come when the winds of COVID-19 have passed, the pandemic has lessened to a not-so-gentle breeze that can be treated and perhaps eliminated with a vaccine.
The Storm of 2020 will no doubt leave its mark in many ways. But the island of Galveston and the beautiful people that call it home, those that come to visit, and those that can appreciate the strength that comes from unity and community will no doubt rise and fly like the Phoenix.
Be safe, be at peace, and love one another. In the end, this is what really matters.