My mother and two sisters, brother-in-law and nephew have loaded up their car and trucks, and are evacuating Galveston Island for what they hope will be just a few days at a Comfort Inn in Dallas.
They've gathered their insurance papers and their deeds, their medicines, the dogs and a few personal items. My brother-in-law has done what he can to secure his boat. The storm shutters are drawn tight. Now there's nothing to do but wait.
In Galveston, a skinny little sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico, when a Category 4 storm is heading your way, you'd better get out of town. All the New Orleans evacuees who fled there are being loaded onto buses and relocated inland.
My sister decided to leave extra early this time, as there is only one evacuation route out of Galveston. The last time they evacuated, the traffic was so bad they sat for hours on a blistering hot highway, barely moving. My mother walked the dog alongside the car.
It's been interesting to hear television commentators repeatedly refer to Katrina as the greatest natural disaster in American history. In Galveston, on Sept. 8, 1900, a hurricane without a name, referred to now as the Great Storm, left more than 6,000 people dead and forever changed the place. A once-thriving seaport, Galveston only in recent years has begun to revisit some of its glory days.
Hurricane lore is ever-present on the island. The last bad one was Alicia, in 1983, and before that, Carla, in 1961. Lifelong islanders who've been through a few constantly remain on alert when hurricane season hits. They shake their heads in disbelief at the lavish new developments on the west end of the island that have no protection from storm surge. When the storm comes, they say, it'll look like a dropped box of pick-up sticks out there.
In the lovely old Strand historical district of Galveston, a major tourist attraction is a museum honoring the memory of the Great Storm. There you can see one of the scariest films you'll ever want to see: black-and-white images of the destruction. At a seaside orphanage, Catholic sisters tied themselves to the children under their charge, and when the storm hit, they all drowned.
After the Great Storm, the Army Corps of Engineers, so maligned in the past few weeks in the blame game over the levee disaster in New Orleans, built a 17-mile seawall to protect Galveston Island from future storm surges. Then they literally raised the elevation of the island with landfill. A vernacular architecture, the raised cottage, was born as houses were lifted off their foundations and placed high on pilings.
On the streets of the old part of Galveston, many houses bear plaques identifying them as "Storm Survivors." These are sturdy houses built of cypress. Some are grand and some are not. They are as alive as any tree or person on the island. They've seen it all. They'll likely make it through this one.
I have loved Galveston ever since my family relocated there 25 years ago and have thought of living there. Part of the lure is those old houses, the storm survivors, with all their ghosts. The other lure, of course, is family.
My kids were there this summer, visiting their cousins before going off to college. My son returned from Iraq and spent two weeks in Galveston recuperating, fishing in the bay and floating on the water. It's a miserable place in summer, the ocean water as hot as bath water. Still, we love it.
Over the past weeks, we've heard Randy Newman's melancholic song "Louisiana" played reverentially on television and radio, evoking the Mississippi River flood of 1927. Now, prepare for the oddly bouncy folk song that commemorated the Great Storm of Galveston: "Wasn't that a mighty storm / Wasn't that a mighty storm in the morning / Well, wasn't that a mighty storm / That blew all the people away."
These storms are sobering reminders of human frailty. All the money in the world can't protect us and can't fix what a mighty storm can do. The best people can do is cling to each other and get the hell out of the way.
I'm praying for Rita to find the least destructive path. I'm expecting the worst. My family will be safe but miserable in Dallas, eager to return. Their houses will rock and quake, water will roll across the island, and the storm survivors will still stand. Galveston's ghosts will endure along with the living.
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