Where the winds don't intimidate
To a Texas island that once lost 6,000 to a storm, Claudette was more pest than peril.
GALVESTON, TEX — If locals say a home survived the storm, you can be sure it predates 1900. If they say their families lived through the storm, you're listening to history a hundred years old.
To Galvestonians, "the storm" always refers to Sept. 8, 1900, a hurricane still considered the deadliest natural disaster in US history, killing some 6,000 people and smashing almost 4,000 buildings into kindling.
So it's no great surprise that Hurricane Claudette blew in to little more than a yawn from many Galvestonians. Texas's first storm of the 2003 hurricane season was a weak Category 1 that ripped up concrete, swamped cars, and left beachfront houses standing in the middle of the ocean. The damage prompted Gov. Rick Perry to request federal disaster relief for more than a dozen gulf-coast counties.
But back in Galveston, resi-dents shrugged on hearing the news and went back to cleaning up. The storm of 1900 is not only a benchmark; it reshaped the way islanders view themselves and their relationship with the sea.
"People here came back from the storm of 1900 with such force. They raised the entire island by 11 feet and built the sea wall, which has protected the island ever since," says Beth Shriner, director of historical properties for the Galveston Historical Foundation. "These are engineering feats that would be considered impossible today, but they were accomplished. And that created a strong sense of perseverance."
That attitude was resurgent this week in the bustling parking lot of Home Depot, the efficiency of city cleanup crews, and the open-for-business signs around town. Most people are here to stay, come hell or high water.
Take Mona Coleman and her husband. They've lived on Galveston's West Beach for 20 years and say hurricanes are just part of life - like familiar, pesky friends.
"In other parts of the country, your house can get hit by a tornado, burned up in a wildfire, or washed away in a mudslide. We know about hurricanes," says Ms. Coleman, surveying the most recent damage from her porch overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
This week, the Colemans went through all the usual rituals: They watched weather reports, stocked up on food and water, and loaded valuables into their car. But in the end, they decided not to evacuate.
"Everyone has their own rules for ... when to leave," says Coleman, nonchalantly. "Some people wait for the wind to reach a certain strength, others watch the tide levels. We do a combination."
Back in 1900, residents didn't have the luxury of radar to track hurricanes, and one prominent meteorologist declared that the shallow water around Galveston shielded it from major storms. So when the Great Storm hit, many were caught completely unawares and could only watch as a tidal surge of nearly 16 feet swamped their homes and washed people away.
It's impossible to visit Galveston Island without learning of the legacy. Even residents can't escape daily reminders, as they walk beside the sea wall along the raised business district or down historic streets with plaques commemorating pre-1900 homes.
"It is part of our psychology, part of our collective consciousness," says Casey Edward Greene, head of special collections at Galveston's Rosenberg Library and author of "Through a Night of Horrors," retracing the Great Storm. "The storm reshaped the city in a radical fashion."
While thousands fled the island for good, those who stayed were determined to prevent another such tragedy. Rebuilding began within days. And when hurricanes hit in 1909, 1915, and 1919, the island was prepared. The seawall held and few lives were lost - bolstering that confidence and resilience.
Even now, people here are often quizzed on whether they were born on the island, or "BOI." Those who were BOI enjoy enormous respect from those who are islanders by choice, or "IBC." "Being BOI is a big thing here. It carries a lot of prestige," says Andi Zarro, with the Galveston Visitor's Bureau. "It's all part of that tie to the past."
While Tina Mogab was not BOI, she understands the appeal. She's lived on Galveston Island since 1985 and has no plans to leave. She loves the small-town style and laid-back attitude here - as well as the miles of sandy beach, regardless of its danger.
In this last hurricane, the water engulfed homes in front of her, leaving them to likely be condemned, That puts Ms. Mogab's house - which already had its first floor invaded by waves - on the frontlines for the next hurricane.
"Sometimes you get discouraged when a storm hits, and you want to sell," she says, unloading a bag of cleaning supplies. "But then you fix your house and can't remember any thought of leaving."