Gulf of Mexico
Texas Tribune/Propublica

Greatest Hits: Hell and High Water

It is not if, but when Houston’s perfect storm will hit…. They called Ike “the monster hurricane.” Hundreds of miles wide. Winds at more than 100 mph. And — deadliest of all — the power to push a massive wall of water into the upper Texas coast, killing thousands and shutting down a major international port and industrial hub.

By most accounts, Houston exists as it does today because of a hurricane that hit nearby Galveston. And because of its location, Galveston will always bear the bigger brunt of a storm than its larger neighbor.

In the years leading up to 1900, Galveston was Texas’ powerhouse maritime metropolis. The 27-mile-long barrier island — situated between Houston and the Gulf of Mexico — boasted the state’s busiest seaport and had a population roughly equal to Houston’s at the time. With more millionaires per capita than any place in the United States, Galveston was alternately called the “Ellis Island of the West” and the “Wall Street of the South.”

Houston, whose shipping lane was a narrow, muddy bayou, struggled to compete with Galveston’s natural, deepwater and easy-to-access port.

But that September, a powerful hurricane engulfed the low-lying island, killing an estimated 6,000 people inside Galveston city limits and as many as 6,000 more outside it. The “Great Storm of 1900” still is the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history and prompted the rapid construction of a 17-foot seawall along part of the island — considered a modern feat of engineering at the time. (The initial 3.3-mile segment was completed less than four years after the storm hit.)

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