Almost exactly 117 years ago, a Category 4 hurricane made landfall on the barrier-island city of Galveston, Texas, with the storm surge and winds destroying at least half of the residential areas and killing at least 6,000 people. The September 8, 1900 catastrophe was one of the most destructive and costly natural disasters in American history, and even generations later it’s the watch word of sorts for what nature is capable of, and how seriously humans need to take it.
One of the reasons Galveston—which suffered damage from Hurricane Harvey in late August—is still around today is because the surviving residents rebuilt around the memory of destruction. Authorities at the federal, state, and local levels joined in building a massive 10-mile-long seawall to guard the city from the brunt of storm-driven waves. Galveston residents also changed the governing structure of the municipality in order to begin work on a most ambitious engineering effort: a project to raise the entire city above flood level, which required lifting buildings by as much as 16 feet and filling in foundations with millions of tons of sand.
Turn-of-the-century Galveston might seem a poor example for some of the challenges modern cities face from hurricanes. Miami, Florida, which endured a powerful—but not direct—blow from Hurricane Irma on Sunday, is the center of a metropolitan area of 5.5 million people, several orders of magnitude larger than Galveston’s 37,000 in 1900. Ditto for Greater Houston, which is the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, and which dwarfs the land area of even present-day Galveston, which has also grown larger and harder to protect than its previous iteration. Other coastal metropolises with the highest risks from tropical weather, flooding, and sea-level rise are also large, sprawling and increasingly complicated. The task of guarding them and of creating plans to deal with powerful storms in the future is almost too big to fathom.