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Will Galveston learn from history?

Hurricane Ike

GALVESTON, TEXAS – Galveston was nearly wiped off the map by a September storm.

I'm not talking about this month's devastating storm; I mean the Great Storm of 1900.

At the turn of the 20th century, Galveston was the largest city in Texas. It rivaled New York as a center of trade and commerce. Its port was one of the largest and busiest in the country.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop Galveston's glowing future. Except a nameless hurricane that hit the island on Sept. 8, 1900.

A view of the wreckage after Hurricane C
SLIDESHOW: Galveston's weathered past

Isaac Cline, a meteorologist with the nascent U.S. Weather Bureau, tried to warn Galveston residents on that warm, late summer day in 1900. He had noticed that barometric pressure readings along the Gulf Coast had been dropping dramatically.

When water began rising in the streets – just as it had hours before Hurricane Ike's arrival – Cline walked along Galveston's beaches trying to warn people to leave.

Few listened.

Six thousand people died in a harrowing night of wind, rain and storm surge. To this day, the Storm of 1900 remains the nation's worst natural disaster. So numerous were the bodies that they were put on barges and carried out to sea to a watery grave. Others were burned in mass funeral pyres. More than 3,000 buildings were destroyed, including a hospital, numerous schools and an orphanage.

Seawall – not enough

In the wake of such a horrible calamity, many people questioned the wisdom of rebuilding on an island barely above sea level.

But the same advantages that drew early settlers here were still in place: a prosperous port and an established trade center. In 1900, that was enough of a reason for survivors to build an engineering landmark: a concrete seawall seven miles long. They also raised the level of the island 17 feet behind the seawall.

VIDEO: Panoramic movies of Galveston's 1900 hurricane

After the island survived powerful hurricanes in 1915 and again in 1919, island residents must have felt invincible. More recent storms, such as Carla in 1961 and Alicia in 1983, added to the confidence that somehow Galveston could survive any storm.

All that has changed with Hurricane Ike. People who live just blocks from the seawall learned to their surprise that their homes can be flooded with storm surge from the opposite direction – the northern part of the island is not protected by the seawall. In the historic downtown district, Ike's 11 foot storm surge was the highest since the storm of 1900.

Then, as now, city leaders vow to rebuild, but with an eye toward higher building elevations – even behind the seawall – and tougher wind-resistant construction.

Hurricane Ike has reminded everyone here that the seawall, though tough and enduring, is not enough to protected Galveston from a painful past.

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