Galveston looks like a war zone. Sections of the 61st Street pier still stand, but the rest was splintered in Hurricane Ike’s churning surge. Winds clocked at 110 mph collapsed the roof at City Hall; famous seaside restaurants imploded and hotels lost walls and windows; once-moored sailboats and power cruisers snapped free and slammed onto roadways; downed transmission lines sparked houses into flame even before the storm barreled ashore, but because of storm-surge flooding the fire department was forced to let them burn. Streets were impassable, littered with piles of debris, a jumble of telephone poles, park benches, signs, tree limbs, palm fronds, mailboxes and shingles- the flotsam and jetsam of a town submerged.
But of all the damages, the most striking blow was delivered to a small memorial set atop the historic seawall, the battered community’s single line of defense against ravaging waves. The simple bronze sculpture, erected in 2000, consisted of three figures locked in close embrace: a father, mother, and child sunk into rising water. With his left arm, the father held fast to his family; his right was thrust into the air, fingers outstretched in a signal of distress.
The memorial commemorated the human plight of September 1900, when an unnamed Category 4 hurricane blew the city to pieces, killing as many as 8,000 people. That storm is still considered the worse natural disaster in American history, and it destroyed Galveston’s economy for more than a generation, allowing Houston to surpass it as the key port on the Texas Gulf Coast. Although the city would rebuild, it would never recover its former clout, becoming instead a tourist town. One of its many attractions had been the statue marking the centennial of the day when Galveston went under the waves.
Ike, which crashed into the island almost exactly 108 years later, smashed the statue to smithereens. One distraught Texan lamented online: “Beautiful memorial, very sad to see it gone.”
Yet its destruction should serve as a warning: The very seawall into which the commemorative statue had been bolted, a bulwark built in the aftermath of the killer storm of 1900, could not protect this small piece of hallowed ground or the city that surrounds it. That it could not suggests we need to rethink our presence on the coastal Gulf in this age of increasingly frequent and increasingly intense hurricanes.
Hurricane Ike, like its 2005 predecessors Katrina and Rita, exacted such a huge toll due to the collision of two forces, one climatic and the other demographic. The slow but steady increase in the earth’s temperature, which comes paired with a rise in sea level, has had a powerful impact on the development of hurricanes. These storms, born in the warm waters off Africa, spin across the south Atlantic only to refuel in the bathtub-warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, swelling in size and ferocity. Their extent-Ike reached epic proportions, a 600-mile-wide cyclonic swirl-has allowed them to start pounding islands and mainlands long before their full force reaches a coastline. As their surges pile up on barrier islands and beaches, they grind and scour these natural defenses. Such enduring assaults also spell disaster for any concrete structures designed to repulse smaller storms and lower waters. The effects of climate change are manifest in every eroded beachhead, flattened mangrove swamp, and drowned wetland.
Dangers to humans are soaring as well, a direct corollary to the rapid rise in regional populations. Connect these dots: Brownsville, Corpus Christi, and Galveston; New Orleans and the Florida Panhandle; St. Petersburg, Tampa and Fort Myers. These form an arc of explosive growth along the third coast of the United States. Young and old have flocked to these warm and humid landscapes, participants in successive waves of migration into the Sunbelt that commenced 50 years ago. Their increased presence has led to spikes in the value of oceanfront real estate, boosting the construction of numerous apartment buildings and condominiums that hug the shore. More and more people are crowding into low-lying coastal enclaves at exactly the same moment that their glittering sands are most imperiled.
That’s why, when Hurricane Dolly slammed into the southern Texas coast on July 23, damages topped $1.2 billion. That’s why Hurricane Gustav’s punishing run through the Caribbean, which ended only after it plowed into Louisiana, is credited with wracking up more than $20 billion in losses. And that’s why early estimates for Ike’s crushing impact are close to $30 billion, a tally that surely will inflate in the coming weeks. The loss of human life may well be incalculable, but one calculation seems reasonable: As more of us choose to live in harm’s way, more of us-and the communities we inhabit-will come to harm.
Defending these swelling centers in the face of global warming becomes a complex, perhaps impossible task. If a Category 2 storm such as Gustav, which veered well west of New Orleans, still managed to overtop that city’s current levee structures, how high must we build those walls to resist a direct hit of similar or greater magnitude? If Ike, another Category 2 storm, was able to collapse Louisiana levees far east of its Galveston landfall and roll over the island’s 17-foot seawall, what would it take to repel a bulldozing Category 3? How much concrete are we willing to pour? How much money are we willing to spend? Who decides? Who benefits?
These are only some of the tough policy questions we must ask and answer if we want to construct a genuine memorial to grief-stricken residents of the Gulf Coast, who once again must pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and decide how, and where, to start over.
Char Miller teaches at Trinity University in San Antonio, and is visiting professor of environmental analysis and history at Pomona College, Claremont, California. He is the author of Deep in the Heart of San Antonio: Land and Life in South Texas (Trinity University Press).