Friday, September 12, 2008

Memories of killer 1900 storm haunt Galveston ahead of Ike

Residents here are warily following the progress of Hurricane Ike -- currently bearing down on the Texas Gulf coast -- mindful of the anniversary this month of a storm that devastated the island city in 1900.

Galveston's history of barely surviving the "Great Storm" of 1900 makes residents inclined to prepare for the worst.

The 1900 hurricane produced a storm surge that submerged Galveston and killed 6,000 people.

News reports and letters written at the time told of bodies washing ashore and stacking up on the beach like driftwood, then attracting clouds of black flies. With food and water in short supply, vigilantes shot and lynched looters and those suspected of looting.

"For those of us who had relatives who survived the Great Storm and heard the stories and saw the photographs -- we are very aware of the lessons learned," said Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas.

"It informs and has led to a high level of preparedness here even today," said Thomas, whose grandparents lived through the 1900 storm.

City officials have already been testing back-up generators and mobilizing police to patrol evacuation routes.

The Port of Galveston has been helping its tenants, which include Del Monte Fresh Produce, ADM Grain and Holcim Cement, to move cargo inland and secure loose items that could become projectiles in hurricane force winds. The port is also home to several ship and offshore rig repair yards.

Preparations for the hurricane started early, said Steven Cernak, the Port of Galveston's director and CEO. "We don't want any hiccups."

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the city's largest employer, also begun disaster preparations.

The university has stockpiled dry ice, and every department has been warned they might have to lock down research sites, postpone surgeries and ready patients for evacuation.

"It's not only the memory of the Great Storm but what happened after Katrina," said UTMB spokesperson Marsha Canright. "We had a number of doctors and nurses who went to New Orleans and saw what happened to the medical facilities there and that is just not going to happen here."

Galveston also has a 90-day cash reserve to begin recovery efforts immediately after a storm rather than having to wait like New Orleans for the federal government to release funds. The city was also able to push through a state law that allows it to borrow up to 20 million dollars to rebuild without a voter referendum.

Additionally, Galveston has contracted with private companies like Home Depot and Wal-Mart to bring in provisions and building supplies after a hurricane. Carnival Cruise line has also committed to provide one of its passenger ships in the event it is needed for emergency housing.

"Because of The Great Storm we have a great respect for the devastation a hurricane can bring," said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce. "We're constantly looking at how we can be more prepared."

The Chamber has published an extensive guide on things businesses should do ahead of a storm, like backing up data files and storing them off-site.

During hurricane season Galveston residents tend to keep their gas tanks full in case they need to quickly evacuate and their cupboards stocked with water, food, candles and batteries.

Among them is Shrub Kempner, an investment manager and native islander whose ancestors weathered the 1900 hurricane.

"Memories are long here and that makes us take storms very seriously," he said.

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