Beautiful September has finally arrived. The crowded beaches have thinned, traffic along the Seawall is back to some degree of normalcy, the long lines in restaurants have dwindled and though tourism remains active, hotel reservations have slowed. With most schools having resumed in late August and early September, the crowds of young folks circling in trucks and fancy cars have hugely decreased.
September is a great time to be on the Island, but it has not always been so great. Generally, Galveston and the Texas Gulf Coast have concerns about storms and hurricanes that historically have been at their worst during September and October. It is fair to say that locals take a deep breath during these storm activity months and anxiously await the coming end of the Hurricane season. Just a year ago, Harvey lingered in the warm waters of the Gulf long enough to soak up enough water, only to come ashore and begin a three-day onslaught of wind, rain, flooding and devastation. A year out and many homes and areas are still in a state of catastrophe after the beating from Harvey.
For a long time, Galveston has been linked with hurricanes and the destructive lore that surrounds them. Over the years, there have been many storms, too numerous to name. The very mention of names such as Alicia, Carla, Beulah, Andrew, Rita and many others, conjures sad and unpleasant memories for many Islanders and Southeast Texas residents. Back before storms had names, the mother of them all roared ashore on the bustling Island and forever changed the Island and its place in the world.
September 8, 1900 is day that lives in infamy. What began as a typical Saturday morning on the Island quickly turned into the largest natural disaster ever on American soil. The Great Storm, as it has since been called, engulfed the tiny island, destroying most all structures and taking with it, (depending on which reports and versions you read), over 5 thousand lives; some estimates even go as high as 12,000 deaths. No one will ever know the exact amount, but it is monumental. Men, women, children and animals perished in a hell of wind, water and flying debris.
Although we have since gotten a taste of the damage great storms can do, 118 years later it is almost impossible to fully grasp the devastation the Great Storm brought. Time and technology have moved the human race so far along, most cannot recall life before cell phones, radios, internet and television with weather tracking and so on. Being caught in the storm with no way to know what is happening must have been a horrible nightmare.
The storm and its impact has been chronicled in numerous books, documentaries and research projects: from ghastly stories of piles of burning bodies to a handful of nuns lashing little children together with bed sheets in order to survive only to be found in the sand and rubble after the tempest blew, still connected with tattered sheets. Even the great Thomas Edison sent a film crew that made a short film showing the world just what had transpired on the tiny island.
The stories of heroism, loss and devastation are haunting and to read of them stirs at one’s soul and heart. The Island has never forgotten that day and, though no survivors are alive today, there are many recorded tapes, transcripts and photos housed in the famous Rosenberg Libraries’ special collections. As you listen to survivors recount that Saturday in September, it sends chills up your spine.
Even today there are still books and movies produced retelling the story of the Great Storm. Erik Larson wrote perhaps the best descriptive work with Isaac’s Storm, a national bestseller that vividly tells the story of Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist with the U.S. Weather Bureau. Living in Galveston and realizing a horrible monster of a storm was on the way, Cline tried to warn people and make plans for evacuations and escape, but all in vain.
Isaac’s Storm is a must-read for anyone interested in Galveston and the Great Storm, especially during September and storm season. Former mayor, now deceased and beloved Galveston daughter Lyda Ann Thomas said of the book, “It really is one the greatest things I have read regarding that day in September.”
No doubt the Great Storm left its mark on the tiny bar island. To walk the Seawall, a great architectural feat, is to walk along the very spine of history where man’s resilient spirit rose to forever fight the wind and waters that come with great hurricanes. Galvestonians are saddened but proud of their great history and the story of the storm that devastated the island. They are sad for the loss of life, beautiful buildings, animals and a genteel way of living, but they are proud of their courage and strength to rebuild, a pride and strength that continues to this day.
A detailed telling of the storm story can be viewed at the Pier 21 Theatre. The Great Storm is an excellent visual and auditory lesson about the storm that forever changed Galveston Island. 2100 Harborside Drive. Adults, $6. Students 6 to 18, $5. Children under 6, free.
Whatever this September brings — hopefully only sunshine and happiness — let us all take a few minutes to remember the thousands of people and animals that perished on that September day in 1900.