0817 editors note galveston storm 1900 p7pg1c

The debris on 19th Street in Galveston, 1900

We Houstonians all have our storm stories, and we love to tell them. But I hope I never have one that travels all the way down to my great-grandchildren. Because that’s when you know it’s bad.

In 1900, my great-grandfather, Isbel Revis, was serving in the United States Army and stationed in Galveston, living with my great-grandmother Laura in a house several blocks off the beach. And it was in that house where Laura found herself when the surprise Hurricane of 1900—which remains the deadliest in U.S. history—hit the unprotected island.

“Of course, there was no Seawall,” my mom reminded me recently. “So when the hurricane came, it just washed over the island, and she was in this house, and the story was that the waters came into the house and flooded the whole bottom story. She was terrified, up on the top of the second-floor stairs, waiting to see if the waters were going to keep rising and kill her. But they subsided, and so she lived to tell the story.”

In the storm’s aftermath, Isbel was faced with the grim task of collecting the bodies. Somewhere around 8,000 people died that day. At the time, the island had around 38,000 total residents. My great-grandparents were lucky. If they hadn’t been, some other Houstonian would be sitting at a desk, writing you guys a note.

Never mind that, though: The Great Storm altered the destiny of the entire region. Galveston, of course, would not become the great city on the Gulf, although it did finally get its Seawall. Instead, that honor would go to Houston.

My great-grandparents left the island as soon as they could, hightailing it back to Dallas, where they were from. And the hurricane instilled a sense of fear in Laura that never went away. “She was always terrified,” my mom recalled. “We would take her for an outing at the beach and if it would get dark, she would get nervous. She wanted to leave and go back home. She never wanted to stay there again.”

Laura was right: Life on the coast, whether in Galveston or Houston, can be truly scary. But luckily, things are different today. We have warning systems, evacuation routes, and technology of every stripe at the ready. So instead of moving away like my great-grandparents, now we can just move out of the way. And given how much we otherwise love this crazy town, that’s an entirely preferable option.

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