Never mind that Ike ended up a Category 2 hurricane, not the cataclysmic killer that was predicted. In Galveston, it was bad.
Not even two days ago, what are now piles of debris were people’s homes, their belongings – smashed by winds up to 110 mph, dumped by a storm surge 13-15 feet high.
Ike is a stern reminder that storms happen, in spite of all the 21st century weather technology, in spite of all the dire warnings to evacuate.
The National Weather Service didn’t mince words: Of Galveston they said, “Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family one- or two-story homes will face certain death.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was also admonishing: “Our nation is facing what is, by any measure, a potentially catastrophic hurricane. It’s not a time again to play chicken with the storm or to take risks with the storm.”
But people did just that, even though a good twelve hours before Ike actually hit much of Galveston Island was already flooded. Of the city’s population of 57,000, by some estimates 40% stayed.
On Friday afternoon, knowing full well what was coming, thrill seekers stood on the 17-foot sea wall as waves crashed over the monument to the Great Storm of 1900 which Galveston had no idea was headed its way.
“Clearly it ranks, at least in terms of death toll, as the number one most lethal hurricane in history,” said Erik Larsson, author of the 1999 bestseller “Isaac’s Storm.” “In fact, [it’s] the single most lethal natural disaster in U.S. history.”
The Category Four hurricane killed at least 6,000 people, possibly as many as 12,000. There were 150-mile-an-hour winds and a 16-foot storm surge.
In “Isaac’s Storm,” Larsson recounted the true story of how Isaac Cline, head of the local weather bureau, failed to predict it, and the tragic consequences when it made landfall.
A cascade of errors, of unexpected things, came together so that this monumental storm arrived essentially by surprise.
The before-and-after pictures are startling: Galveston had been rich and cocky, sure it was about to become the New York of the South. The hurricane ended its grand ambitions forever.
In an interview marking the 100th anniversary of the storm, Larsson said, “If there are poor choices for where to put a city, Galveston Island probably ranks close to number 1.”
Since 1900, eight more significant hurricanes have battered Galveston, in 1915 and again in 1943. There was Carla in 1961, Fern in 1971, Alicia in 1983, Rita in 2005, and Humberto last year.
And now Ike (ironically, a nickname for Isaac).
(Left: Debris surrounds damaged aircraft and hangars at Scholes Field on Galveston Island after the passing of Hurricane Ike, Sept. 13, 2008.
Isaac Cline became obsessed with improving hurricane forecasting so the horror of 1900 would never be repeated.
As soon as Ike’s winds died down yesterday, the Coast Guard began picking up people by the hundreds who chose to stay in Galveston and push their luck in spite of ample warning.
Galveston residents Codie and Katy also rode out the storm. They felt pretty lucky, even though they “lost everything.”
… Everything except their lives. That’s the difference between Isaac’s storm and Ike.