A Tale of Two Hurricanes
During the night of September 8, 1900, the Great Storm, a hurricane with winds of up to 145mph drove a surge that submerged much of the island under 15ft of water and destroyed nearly 4000 homes. Where Galveston had been, there were now only the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time there was no weather tracking and no warning systems to give residents the chance to flee. Of the town's 37,000 people, it's estimated that as many as 8000 died, but no one will ever know the exact toll. The storm struck in the dead of night and survivors recounted the horrifying screams and dying out of lights. To this day it is still the nation's deadliest natural disaster. Learn more by watching the Great Storm film at Pier 21 Theater, which uses actual photos and survivor diary entries to recount the tale.
To prevent another such catastrophe, in the 1900s the city constructed a 10-mile-long, 17ft-high seawall. At the same time it raised the grade of the land – from a few inches to seawall height – in a roughly 500 square block area. Private property owners had to pay to have their own buildings jacked up to the required height. You'll notice the difference at Ashton Villa, one of the few buildings that was allowed to be partially buried.
The seawall seems to have worked as intended, as major hurricanes in 1909, 1915, 1961 and 1983 all struck the island but wrought significantly less human and financial damage.
Both the seawall and technological weather-watching advances probably saved many lives when Hurricane Ike made landfall on September 13, 2008. More than 125 lives were lost in Galveston. Roughly 110mph winds and a 13ft storm surge caused $37.5 billion in damage across a long swath of the Gulf Coast, making Ike is the third-costliest hurricane in the nation's history.
Reconstruction has taken time – beaches were swept out to sea and much of the downtown area was not only flooded but deluged by sludge as sewage lines burst. Beach-restoration projects have pumped sand from the gulf back onto the shore and rebuilding will continue indefinitely. Not all the previous businesses reopened, but new restaurants and shops have come in, and the city continues to rebuild – as it always has.