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Thursday, September 22, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fearsome storm whips up history

Chicago Tribune

GALVESTON, Texas — A sea wall rising 16 feet above the glistening Gulf of Mexico stands as a reminder of the 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000 residents and destroyed this island, transforming it from booming ship port to a place where tourists remember the past.

Hurricane Rita, with its 165 mph winds, now threatens this community of seaside hotels, where windows with panoramic views are obscured by plywood. Under clear blue skies yesterday, residents placed dogs in carriers and packed family photographs and mementos, leaving Victorian homes to beat a mandatory 6 p.m. evacuation.

A town that for so long has commemorated its destruction — the local "Great Storm" Theater regularly plays 30 minutes of images, writings and sounds of the 1900 hurricane, its aftermath and rebuilding — was preparing to relive it.

"The images of the devastation of 1900 are always with us. It's engraved in our collective consciousness even more than most communities," said Marsh Davis, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation.

"Time has caught up with us, and we are facing the first evacuation here in 20 years."

Recent images of Hurricane Katrina's ruin have been adequate warning for this island's residents, who have grown up with daily reminders of the 1900 hurricane.

Ten miles of sea wall separate residents from the Gulf, and plaques mark homes that survived the storm more than a century ago, more than 2,000 of which were elevated in the 1900s to protect them from future storms.

The local museum features an ongoing storm exhibit, and pictures on the walls of restaurants depict the storm's destruction.

A large, fading granite stone in a cemetery memorializes those who perished in 1900. For the 100th anniversary of that storm, a sculpture was added to the sea wall — of a man holding his wife and child and raising one arm to the sky.

"It's an event that people talk about," Davis said. "It was the defining moment for this community."

Galveston had been a major ship port before the 1900 hurricane, local historians said, and its residents believed their town could overcome anything.

But the storm quickly whipped into the equivalent of a Category 3 or 4 hurricane, devastating the island, which was less than 9 feet above sea level and completely vulnerable, historians said.

The storm surged nearly 16 feet at an estimated 140 mph, killing 8,000 of the town's 37,000 residents and destroying 3,600 buildings, according to historical data.

Galveston's strong economy was reason to rebuild in a hurry. Three ships dredged sand from a Galveston bayou and pumped it through canals dug into sections of the island.

Homeowners elevated their structures on screw jacks or filled in their basements to raise their homes, said Christy Carl, director of the Galveston County Historical Museum.

The work that began in 1902 mostly was paid for by the city through the sale of bonds, with some tax relief from the state, Carl said. When the work was complete, the highest level of the sea wall was 17 feet above sea level, sloping to sea level to the harbor on the north side.

At the same time, however, Houston had begun to build a ship channel closer to railroads. That city replaced Galveston as Texas' major port.

"That was the end of Galveston's eminence as the Gulf seaport," Davis said.

"It recovered but certainly it was never going to be what it was before."

With fewer than 60,000 residents today, Galveston continues as a port but lives off tourists who appreciate its beaches and rich historical architecture.

"Storms can shift economies," Carl said. "It's where you just have to try to make the lemonade out of the lemons as best you can."

Because the community had little money, Carl said, many old buildings were left standing and eventually were renovated.

They now represent "one of the highest concentrations of Victorian homes in America," Carl said. "It's really shifted from a port as its base to really almost a service industry."

As Hurricane Rita threatens the Gulfside town, historians say the island is much more prepared now.

"Not to say that a monster storm couldn't take us out — that could absolutely happen," Davis said.

City Councilwoman Patricia Bolton-Legg packed her 1895 home yesterday morning; it is a survivor of the island's 1900 storm, according to a plaque outside.

She said Hurricane Katrina had raised fear on the island.

"Normally, you would stay here, hunker down and ride it out," she said. "There's mixed feelings in the community. Some elderly are diehard. You've got other people that know the potential of the threat and are ready to evacuate."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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