Back to Magazine


Unforgettable storms


Galveston, Texas is the home of America’s deadliest natural disaster: the hurricane of 1900 that claimed more than 6,000 lives. Today, this city built on an island still suffers successive hurricanes. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Ike, is the city’s much-needed recovery being forgotten?

On 12 september 2008 — exactly 108 years and five days after the unnamed ‘Great Storm’ of 1900 — Galveston Island, off the Texas coast near Houston, was hit head-on by Hurricane Ike. The 966-kilometre (600-mile) wide Category 2 storm (on a scale that counts five, with Category 5 being the most severe) crossed the Gulf of Mexico on a trajectory hauntingly similar to its historic predecessor. Ike left 75 per cent of the island’s buildings and streets buried under several metres of brown, churning salt water and the city’s electric, gas, water and sewage systems inoperable.

The situation was dire. The city of Galveston, Texas’s oldest port city, was devastated physically and psychologically, its economic engine ground to a sudden halt.

For a few days, at least in Houston and the immediate surrounding environs, a 24-hour news cycle churned visuals of the flooded island, its homes afire, its seaside structures thrown up onto the streets in piles of splintered lumber. Some 40,000 evacuated residents watched from motel rooms, shelters and family homes on the mainland, looking for sparks of life and waiting to hear when they would be allowed to return to their sodden residences to begin mitigation efforts.

Nearby, the Bolivar peninsula, home to some 30,000 residents at high season, was almost swept clean of buildings and trees, its bridges wiped out and the ferry connecting it to Galveston Island out of commission. Small inland communities along the canals and rivers splintering off Galveston Bay also saw massive home losses and flooding.

America’s eyes were on the Hurricane Ike disaster for a brief few days, bringing back memories of Hurricane Katrina and its crushing landfall on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf coast just three years before. US President George W. Bush and former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited the island to survey the damage alongside eager camera crews. But media attention quickly turned to a different kind of disaster on 15 September when Lehman Brothers bank collapsed leaving the US banking and investment system on life support and the economy in a prolonged state of emergency.

Galveston became old news fast and was left to recover out of sight and out of the minds of the vast majority of Americans. At stake were billions of dollars in damages, uncertainty about the survival of the city’s key employers and an ongoing internal battle over what kind of city Galveston would become once the flood waters receded and recovery began. This historic seaport, home to rich architectural treasures and a world-class medical research and teaching school, has a reputation for pugnacious survival in the face of adversity. It now faced rebuilding and redefining itself for the second time in just over a century.

Local Red Cross goes into action
Among the buildings swamped in Ike’s flood waters was the Galveston County Red Cross branch headquarters. American Red Cross staff there had hastily piled items on top of furniture, expecting a few centimetres of standing water — not an unusual circumstance on this low-lying barrier island — and evacuated to wait out the storm at Houston.

Before leaving, they helped with evacuation efforts, directing island residents to buses headed for shelters in San Antonio and Houston. When they returned, everything in their building, including a carefully preserved letter from American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, was under 1.2 metres of water. Late summer heat and closed, wet buildings produced a pervasive mould that destroyed the contents of many ground floors across Galveston, including those at the Red Cross.

Undeterred, Galveston County Red Cross executive director Mari Berend, who had taken up her post just six weeks before, went to work with a staff of four, a handful of local volunteers and a welcome crew of hundreds of volunteers from the surrounding region and across the country. They handed out emergency food packets and water, and began the tedious task of checking every street on the island, looking for survivors and assessing the damage.

“[The Red Cross] had shelter agreements with 12 buildings in the city,” said Berend. “The day after the storm, not one of them was usable.” Some 15,000 inhabitants of the island had ignored the then Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas’s orders to evacuate or were unable to leave the island for lack of transportation. Shelter was desperately needed.

Berend and her staff took shelter in an old school building and in cooperation with the Texas task force (made up of volunteers from the Salvation Army, Red Cross and a Southern Baptist church men’s group) provided food to stranded islanders from 400 mobile feeding units across the community.

A tent shelter erected on the grounds of an elementary school in central Galveston, run by the city authorities, the Galveston County Red Cross branch and the American Red Cross, became a temporary home to more than 800 people.

“We directed and referred people to services, and continued providing food and shelter,” said Berend, until a federal emergency declaration brought in the United States’s Federal Emergency Management Agency, to take over disaster relief and move the community towards recovery. Berend’s efforts are focused now on rebuilding her volunteer corps which, she says, went from 447 trained and certified volunteers to 39 post-Ike, a decline due to the swift depopulation of the island after the storm.

A page from the past
The American Red Cross looms large in Galveston’s history, owing to its extensive relief efforts following the great storm of 1900, when Clara Barton, aged 78, travelled to Galveston from Washington DC, to head relief distribution. Operating out of a four-storey warehouse that still stands, Barton was shocked by what she found on the stricken island — more than 6,000 people dead, wagonloads of corpses being buried at sea only to wash ashore again, countless orphans and homeless men and women, and residential areas reduced to rubble. To this day, the Great Storm remains the single most deadly natural disaster in American history.

Barton wrote: “The sea, with its fury spent, had sullenly retired. The strongest buildings, half standing roofless and tottering, told what had once been the make-up of a thriving city.”
With Barton’s help, the attention of generous philanthropists across the country brought in large donations of cash and supplies. Local women, inspired by Barton, became involved in shaping public policy and public health issues. The island had lost 12,000 people or 32 per cent of its population, but the city quickly repaired its deep-water harbour and embarked on one of the United States’s most successful building projects. The US Army Corps of Engineers elevated every surviving building on the island, raised the ground itself with infill and erected a 27-kilometre (17-mile) concrete seawall to protect the island from future storms. The recovery of a city nearly completely destroyed was nothing short of miraculous.

Reclaiming their future
Forty months after Hurricane Ike, Galveston Island has recovered to a degree but has a long way to go. Gone are the mountains of debris collected from city streets and hauled off the island, truckload by truckload. Insured homeowners have rebuilt their flood-ravaged homes and businesses have re-opened their doors. Gentle sea breezes still wash the island, hefting wings of seagulls and pelicans, and the grand old houses on the island’s East End, many of them survivors of the 1900 storm, still stand, witnesses to fickle turns of weather and the brutal force of nature.

The University of Texas Medical Branch was heavily damaged by the storm and at risk of being closed after more than half its workforce was let go. But it was rescued after a political fight between the university’s board of regents and a determined island politician, State Representative Craig Eiland, which returned full state funding to the institution and guaranteed its presence on the island for the foreseeable future.

But the island’s low-income residents haven’t fared so well. When all four public housing projects were ruined by Ike, the city made the decision to bulldoze them rather than rebuild. Thousands of workers and elderly people who had evacuated their houses, the majority African-American, had no homes to return to. And while the city received more than adequate federal funding to replace housing according to the directives of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Galveston’s housing authority and city council have locked horns and failed to decide how, where and when to rebuild.

Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski admitted frustration over the issue.

“There’s a sense of blame, that poor people, it’s their fault,” he noted. Jaworski said some Galvestonians oppose what they perceive as a sense of entitlement by those who lived in public housing. “Why should they get help and not me?”

Also at play is a political climate fuelled by anti-government sentiment at both federal and local levels.

“The debate over federal versus local control plays into this,” said Jaworski. “The people who oppose rebuilding low-income housing say, ‘The feds [federal government] won’t tell me what to do.’ Those in support of rebuilding say, ‘They [the poor] have just as much right as anyone to come home.’ Meanwhile, hundreds of people are fixing their houses with the same pot of money and they are not complaining about it.”

At issue is how the city will define itself in the future: as a laid-back resort community dependent on tourism, with a large number of workers commuting to affordable housing on the mainland, or as the working-class city it has long been, dependent on the wharves, the port and the medical centre and their labourers to support the local economy.

Neighbourhoods across the island still harbour rotted-out houses that have been deserted, and the city lacks the staff to claim and demolish them. But Jaworski’s number-one concern is the dip in population following Hurricane Ike, putting Galveston’s census below 50,000 and at risk of being declassified as a small urban district subject to federal transportation and education funding.
“There’s a sense of loss in the community,” he admitted, “a fear that we’re not coming back. But I choose to see it differently. We bottomed out; now let’s change.”

Trevor Riggen, senior director of disaster services for the American Red Cross, spent three weeks in Galveston following Hurricane Ike in 2008, helping coordinate the emergency response. Galveston, he says is representative of a lot of communities in the United States that see population and numerous other community losses after a disaster.

“The question becomes, now that you’ve seen the impact of a natural disaster like Hurricane Ike, how do you organize against that impact in the future?” says Riggen.

The American Red Cross advocates partnership and training with local businesses, churches, schools and community centres to ‘develop resilience’. One such tool is its newly developed Ready Rating, a service to businesses and organizations to help them measure their readiness and preparedness level in the face of future disasters. One rating criteria, for example, asks the following question: if your company or organization has one central headquarters and it is destroyed, how will you conduct operations and reach your people? It’s not a hypothetical question, but an experience-based reality check for communities like Galveston.

To Riggen, helping companies and local organizations survive is key to helping people recover. “We’ve seen how invested those centres of gravity, those centres for social capital are in a community like Galveston. They are trusted resources,” he said. “Our job is to help them develop tools to either respond or recover.”

Taking aim at poverty and blight also requires time and will. Jaworski cites a pre-Ike complacency in Galveston that was satisfied to let poor people live in ghettoes. Now, he is championing a movement towards building new mixed-income neighbourhoods and scattering low-income housing around the city.

“I say let’s play on the strengths of this place, let’s make it so affordable and gorgeous that people will look and say, ‘Why aren’t I living there?’”

By Kathryn Eastburn
Kathryn Eastburn is an author who lives in Colorado, USA.

A Galveston resident surveys what is left of the trailer that he lived in before it was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in September 2008.  Photo: ©REUTERS/Carlos Barria, courtesy







“[The Red Cross] had shelter agreements with 12 buildings in the city. The day after the storm, not one of them was usable.”
Mari Berend, executive director of the American Red Cross’s Galveston County branch










This map shows the path of Hurricane Ike and many other storms that have slammed Caribbean nations and the Gulf Coast of the United States.





A photo taken after the ‘Great Storm’ of 1900, which destroyed much of Galveston, Texas and took the lives of roughly 6,000 people.








“The sea, with its
fury spent, had
sullenly retired. The
strongest buildings,
half standing roofless
and tottering, told
what had once been
the make-up of a
thriving city.”

Clara Barton,
founder of the
American Red Cross










Clara Barton






“The question becomes, now that you’ve seen the impact of a natural disaster like Hurricane Ike, how do you organize against that impact in the future?”
Trevor Riggen,
senior director of disaster services for the American Red Cross














Red Cross volunteers assist a resident with settling into a storm shelter in Galveston in 2008.
Photo: ©William Pitts/American Red Cross


Contact Us