Thursday, September 22, 2005

waiting for the big one

Were the inhabitants of Galveston blissfully oblivious of the approaching dome of water in 1900? Did they know it was a storm to end all storms as the wind picked up and the sky darkened? Until that hurricane hit, Galveston was equally as important a city as Houston. After nearly being flattened, and losing 8,000 to 12,000 dead from the hurricane, the city never recovered. Of the ten deadliest storms listed at CNN, two have hit Galveston; the big one of 1900 and another in 1915. Both of those are listed as “only” Category 4 storms.

Here’s hoping the folks of Houston fare better than their New Orleans counterparts. Many of us here have friends and family in the Houston area, and so far they seem to be getting out of the area. I’m thankful to be this far inland, away from a direct hit, though we may get flash floods and some tornados. Yesterday it felt like Saturday was an eternity away in time; today it’s rushing towards us. I don’t know if the continual coverage is a blessing or a curse.We’re obsessed with the weather. Everyone’s becoming an expert on hurricanes. Each of us specializes in a peculiar examination of minutiae of the lore of the storm.

Yesterday the weather gurus were citing Matagorda Bay, just south of Galveston, as the likeliest place for Rita to make landfall. Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle made unplanned landfall there in 1684. He was looking for the mouth of the Mississippi, but charts and maps being what they were in those days, he overshot his destination by a good 400 miles and landed instead in Texas. He wasn’t the first to make a great navigational mistake. In 1528, 156 years earlier, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca landed the remnants of his ragtag crew on Galveston Island. Cabeza de Vaca thought he was much further south and that it would be a short hike to reach a Spanish outpost. Instead it took 18 years traveling west across Texas mostly in bare feet before they met Spanish soldiers in the area of present-day El Paso. (I don’t know why all the movie reviewers thought his sojourn took place in Florida; he spent some time in Florida but his long trek was through Texas. It’s a good movie albeit confusing if you don’t know the history behind it.)

It’s uncertain whether or not La Salle knew where he was, except he knew he was lost. In 1687 he went looking for a French outpost, leaving behind a settlement called Fort St. Louis whose inhabitants disappeared from the annals of history. La Salle was finally murdered by his unhappy followers when he refused to ask directions of a native met on the northward trek. For many years the myth went that he was killed in the area now occupied by the city of Arlington, about midway between Dallas and Fort Worth, but historians more recently conclude his demise actually occurred in Navarro County, some miles southeast of the area. Sorry, Dallas, your history’s just not that interesting.

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