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Saturday, September 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Galveston, site of deadliest U.S. natural disaster, escapes devastation from Rita

GALVESTON, Texas — This barrier island city awoke today with a collective exhale, relieved that Hurricane Rita failed to produce the devastation forecast just days earlier.

"We are fortunate," Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas said. "We missed the big bullet, but we have lots of things to do in the city."

Given Galveston's history, no one could blame residents for holding their breath.

A century ago, a hurricane destroyed most of the city and killed at least 6,000 people — one-sixth of its population — in the nation's deadliest natural disaster. More than 3,600 buildings were destroyed by a nearly 16-foot storm surge pushed by 150 mph winds.

Two years later, construction began on the Galveston Seawall, a nearly 11-mile-long, 17-foot-high granite structure designed to protect the city from the unpredictable Gulf of Mexico. It easily withstood Rita's storm surge, which City Manager Steve LeBlanc estimated at 4 feet.

Rita made landfall about 70 miles east of Galveston at the Texas-Louisiana lines and dropped 4 inches of rain on the city.

Instead of water, it was fire that damaged Galveston's historic downtown Strand area. LeBlanc said the blaze may have been caused by downed power lines. The wind propelled swirls of embers even in the rain, heavily damaging three buildings.

One woman suffered second- and third-degree burns, and two firefighters received minor injuries, Fire Chief Michael Varela said.

Down the road, the wall of a three-story brick building on the Strand collapsed, covering a small city park with piles of red bricks. And along Seawall Boulevard, which skirts the gulf, streetlights snapped and hung by wires. Water covered many streets, making them impassable.

City officials told residents to stay away, saying 75 percent of the island remained without electricity.

Still, Galveston felt lucky.

"I think it could've been worse," said Eugene Alfred, 37. "There's a lot of history here, so I don't see why we can't go back and rebuild."

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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