Galveston Still Remembers the Hurricane of 1900

A 1900 hurricane that left at least 6,000 people dead has had a long-lasting impact on Galveston, Texas. Paul Burka, a Galveston native who is senior executive editor of Texas Monthly, tells Scott Simon about the storm.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Galveston, Texas, was destroyed once by a hurricane in 1900 that killed 6,000 people. Since then hurricanes such as Carla, Alicia and now Rita have followed paths ever so close to that city. Paul Burka is the senior executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine. Galveston is his hometown, a place that he says has been shaped by the hurricanes. Mr. Burka joins us from the studios of KUT in Austin.

Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Burka.

Mr. PAUL BURKA (Texas Monthly): Hi, Scott. Glad to be here.

SIMON: First, help us get some idea of the enormity of this catastrophe: 6,000 people--that's considerably more lives killed than so far as we know will have been killed in Hurricane Katrina and perhaps Rita, and in this case it happened in a small metropolitan area.

Mr. BURKA: It did. It is still the worst natural disaster in American history, which I guess is something that people in Galveston take a grim pride in. The storm struck on September the 8th, 1900. On the morning of September the 8th, Galveston would I think be properly described as the most important city in America between New Orleans and San Francisco, and in 24 hours, probably two-thirds of the houses and the buildings were destroyed. There was not only 6,000 killed, but there was 10,000 missing, never accounted for, and so what that did was, at least in the viewpoint of myself as a Galvestonian--and I think others who've grown up there--it robbed Galveston of its destiny, which was to be a great city, and that was stolen by Houston.

SIMON: Now when you look at the city today, can you still see the effects of the hurricane?

Mr. BURKA: If you know where to look, there are still water marks on the strand which was called at the time the Wall Street of the South. Galveston did all the financing for the cotton industry, on which the South depended. But I think most of the damage is unseen. It's in the minds of the people of Galveston because there has always been ever since 1900 a reluctance of people in Galveston to invest in their hometown. Galveston really hasn't grown in many years, so I think there's that sense of what might have been, and Galveston never really shared in the great booms that Houston and Dallas and the rest of Texas had. I'll tell you...

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BURKA: ...how much this is still an issue in Galveston. On the night of September 7th, 2000, there was a panel in Galveston on the 1900 storm at the old opera house. The place was full; 2,000 people came for that event. You know, it's like it happened yesterday.

SIMON: Save for that storm, Galveston might have been the fourth largest city in the country today rather than Houston.

Mr. BURKA: Well, that's what we say. I'm not sure that I would go that far. Galveston is an island 32 miles long and about two miles wide. It really had limited growth potential, and when the storm hit, as soon as they could, the Houstonians went running off to Washington and said, `Look at what happened to Galveston. And if you want a great port on the Gulf of Mexico, you need to dredge us a channel 50 miles inland where it won't be subject to hurricanes and shipping will be safe,' and that's what Congress did, and once it opened in around 1915, the Galveston port immediately began to lose business to it.

SIMON: Have you ever been in Galveston for a hurricane, Mr. Burka?

Mr. BURKA: Oh, yes. When I was young and there were hurricanes in the '50s, we had a closet in the house that was devoted entirely to hurricanes. We had a 10-gallon jug of distilled water and towels by the gillions because you had to cram them under windows when there was wind-driven rain and because the air was so humid the wood tended to warp, so you had to get those towels in there and make sure that nothing got in or got blown under the door. And nobody really thought about leaving until Carla came along in the '60--1961. It was so huge and it sat offshore for a couple of days and just pounded us. And that's when my mother said, `We're going to Houston,' and as it turned out, I was about to start at Rice University--the semester was about to start, so she just drove me up there and--with my sister and they stayed.

SIMON: You know, Mr. Burka, over the past few weeks, we have grown so accustomed to reassuring New Orleanians and, for that matter, the rest of the country, `Look, great cities build back from these things. Chicago and San Francisco were destroyed by catastrophes and they came back bigger and bolder and stronger than ever.' Does Galveston remind us that, all romance aside, there is nothing guaranteed about that?

Mr. BURKA: Oh, I think it definitely does, and it's a great question because I have New Orleans refugees with me in Austin. They're worried that Baton Rouge will become Houston, and New Orleans will become Galveston, that it will not recover to what it was.

SIMON: Paul Burka, who is senior executive editor of Texas Monthly and a native of Galveston, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BURKA: Thank you.

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