Raise High the Floor Beam, Islanders….

The very definition of “heart-tugging”  is a toddler or young child standing in front of an adult, arms outstretched, begging to be picked up.  Confused, frightened or hungry for attention, they’ve already learned a key to unlocking the resistant adult heart: the single word, “Up!?”   Spoken with authority or pathos, it’s a word that brings big, strong arms down to a child’s level, enfolding the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, raising it in a flash and ensuring its safety “up there”.

The urge to flee upward seems as instinctive as our impulse to run from danger.  On my third birthday, our neighbors decided I should have a pet.  Invited to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the back door with a tiny black puppy in a box.  It may have been a cocker spaniel ~ I remember black, glistening curls of fur and long, floppy ears.  The pup wriggled in paroxysms of pleasure as Mr. Ramey rubbed its belly and scratched its ears.  I was entranced, until they put the puppy on the floor.  Turning a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.     

I don’t know what I was thinking, but what I did became the stuff of family legend.  In two bounds I was onto a dining room chair and up on top of my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all.    Down below, the puppy tumbled and jumped, trying to follow.  I screamed in terror, refusing a chorus of entreaties to “be quiet”, “come down” or “pat the nice puppy”.  Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors collected the pup and made their way home.  I came down from the tabletop after being promised more ice cream, and eventually received a turtle for my birthday.

Fifty years later, I met a fellow who’d had his own experience of  “up”.   French Charlie, as he was known, was born in Marseilles. As befitted his heritage, he was a sailor, given to crossing the Atlantic or Med at the first hint of boredom.  He single-handed in cast-off, creaky old boats, and everyone agreed he had angels as crew.   It was the only way to explain his survival. 

Charlie liked to say he’d made five-and-a-half crossings of the Atlantic.  That “half” always got someone’s attention, giving Charlie a chance to tell his story again: how he left Marseilles in his bathtub of a boat, how one failure led to another,  how ankle-deep in Atlantic waters he called for help on his radio and finally clambered up to the deck to hang on to the mast and await his death. 

As his boat sank slowly beneath him, his angels worked another miracle and brought a Danish freighter to his side.  “What do you need?”, called the First Officer, leaning out over the railing in amazement.  “Up!”,  Charlie called back in the slightly wavering tones of a brave five-year-old.  He was taken aboard  and watched in comfort as his little boat sank beneath the waves. As he told the story, at that very moment he decided coastal cruising might be more to his taste, and resolved to leave the open ocean behind.

Again and again, the impulse toward  “up”  has saved lives.  Wakened from sleep, a vacationer in Phuket misinterprets screams outside his window as the foolishness of children until he looks, sees the ocean scouring the streets and blindly runs up, up and up again until, tumbling from rooftop to balcony to yet higher roofs, he survives to witness the implacable rage of a tsunami.

Astonished by the sight of tropical storm Allison pouring into his home through still-closed windows and doors, a friend in Houston clambers with his children from tabletop to stepstool to attic, where he watches water fill his house to a depth of four feet and waits for the deluge to cease.

Terrified by Katrina’s second surge, thousands of people fled to their rooftops and blessed the Coast Guard, neighbors and perfect strangers who rescued them by water and air.  During the passage of hurricane Ike, a couple who’d chosen to stay in their home climbed from their first floor to the second and then to the third until, as the hurricane’s eye passed overhead and the moon emerged from the clouds, they looked out to find themselves at sea.  Bridges and roads, stop signs and street signs had utterly disappeared beneath the flooding tide.  Only the circling currents and the wind-driven waves reflected the hazy moon. 

 Galveston’s 1900 Storm Memorial Confronts Hurricane Ike ~ Houston Chronicle

In the face of a storm, being able to head to higher ground is a very good thing.  But while people move, structures don’t. In the face of significant storm surge, there’s very little defense for houses, churches, public buildings and schools. Galveston learned that painful lesson in the Storm of 1900.  Not only their most vulnerable dwellings were destoyed.  Substantial homes and public buildings also were ravaged, and after the storm the survivors had a decision to make. Would they run from the devastation, taking whatever possessions they could salvage in order to seek a new home on the mainland?  Or would the city itself move away from the coast and attempt to re-establish itself as an inland center of commerce?

In fact, there was a third option, detailed by Cornelia Dean in her book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches.   Determined to stay on their island – and equally determined to avoid future devastation – the city’s leaders devised a  plan. In Dean’s words,

Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city instead decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall.  Everything inside – houses, churches, offices, trees, gardens – was raised by as much as 17 feet, and then flooded with silt. It was a plan that even in an era of engineering stood out for its size, cost and audacity…
The lifting operation was one of sheer brawn. Laborers ran beams under the buildings and mounted them on screwjacks that burly men turned by hand. In this way, 2,156 buildings were laboriously hoisted, a quarter of an inch at a turn, until they reached the requisite height and new foundations could be built beneath them. Meanwhile, children climbed rickety catwalks to reach their schools; housewives hung their laundry from lines strung fifteen feet above the ground.
Even substantial structures took to the air. At St. Patrick’s Church, a three-hundred ton brick structure, services continued as it rose to the grunts of laborers manning two hundred screwjacks beneath it.
 Galveston and Texas History Center at the Rosenberg Library

Once the seawall had been built and the city raised to float above its island like a cloud, the process of grade-raising began. A canal was dredged through the city center, and fill obtained from Galveston Bay.  Dredges moved continually between harbor and canal, spewing out a slurry of water and sand on both sides.  It was a lengthy process, requiring years.  People lived in their homes and attended worship in their “floating” buildings, making their way around town on boardwalks fastened to the top of fences.  There were wonderful touches – the largest of four dredges was named “Leviathan”, gardeners grew oleanders in boxes on top of their roofs until the project was completed and topsoil could be brought from the mainland – but mostly there was hard, back-breaking work as an entire city literally raised itself out of despair.

   Galveston and Texas History Center at the Rosenberg Library 

After the 1900 Storm,  residents of Galveston elevated their city and raised one another’s spirits with a vision of new life.  Roughly a century later,  as that same coastline faced a hurricane named Ike on September 13, 2008, their seawall held and their tradition of self-reliance held firm.  Up and down Gulf beaches and bay shorelines, people encouraged and supported one another as they began reconstructing their lives.  As in Galveston after 1900, an important element of that recovery has been the elevation of homes.  In San Leon, Bacliff, Oak Island,Clear Lake Shores, Shoreacres, Seabrook, Kemah – in all of the towns and villages of Galveston Bay, the wisdom spray-painted onto a still-abandoned home is cherished: “Move Up  ~ Don’t Give Up”. 

Today, the elevation is happening differently – there are no dredges pumping slurry into neighborhoods – but the sense that higher is better has been written into hearts as well as building codes.  Sometimes the progress is slow. More than a few FEMA trailers still sit next to concrete slabs and pilings and more than a few derelict homes await demolition or insurance settlements.  But the work goes on, and every completed home lifts the heart a little higher.  

Tiny bungalows and cottages rest on new pilings as lightly as a feather.   Gardeners landscape around dead or dying trees, work the soil and hang petunias and bougainvillea for color.  Grandparents incorporate bits and pieces of their history into new construction while newlyweds sit along the rubble-strewn path of their barely-begun journey and ponder questions washed up by the surge: How shall we shape our lives?  shall we stay or shall we go? Are the answers offered by the past adequate for our day? Is there a way, finally, to rise above circumstance? 

Even in a year unmarked by the anguish and devastation of a major hurricane, the lessons of the storm are worth remembering. Not every flood is due to the river’s rise or a hurricane’s surge.  Not all the debris floating through our lives is so easily disposed of as plywood and plastic.  Not all of the filth that clogs the mind and coats the spirit can be washed away like so much clinging mud.

There are devastations of the spirit, surges of pain, winds of conflict or change that shake our certainties and unnerve us as surely as the worst storms of the season.  Remembering those who endured and prevailed over the worst of the natural world, we may find in them the inspiration to create some higher ground, to raise our sights, to shore up our foundations and re-build our ties to one another before another, unexpected storm seeks to sweep us all away.


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26 thoughts on “Raise High the Floor Beam, Islanders….

  1. UP! — Why is it that the bad guys in movies, in their desperate attempts to escape the law, ALWAYS choose to run up stairs to the roof where there’s no possibility of getting away? (With the exception of Leon (Jean Reno) in The Professional who gives Gary Oldman the hand grenade ring…”This is from Matilda…”)

    The best escape upwards, ever, has to be James Cagney in White Heat…”Top of the World, Ma!”


    Well, let’s see… I think they run up the stairs to the roof because they instinctively know that’s the way to escape, but, being that they’re in a movie and all, things get rearranged for dramatic effect and they don’t get away. ;-)

    In the movies, the bad guys rarely have a chance. In real life, “up” at least gives you a chance!

  2. Thank you for a moving post, Linda. Catastrophes like this and others ought to be commemorated, not only for preventive measures for the future, but for the humanity that have been stricken in the past.

    Your voice is one that speaks for the destitute, the victims, reminding us the resilience and strength they have, not just to survive, but thrive despite all odds. Thank you for an uplifting piece of writing!


    It’s hard to know how to commemorate an event such as Ike – or any of the other events that come to us unbidden, absolutely beyond our control.
    It’s been so interesting to follow the local television coverage. There’s been very little footage of the storm itself, or the immediate devastation, and a good bit of attention paid to still-struggling individuals. It reminds me of something I was told by a friend in television news some years ago. As she put it, “Even the media longs to move on.”

    As for this piece, it made me realize again how deeply I’ve been shaped as a person by a single, short speech – Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Every now and then some variation of the phrase “endure and prevail” pops up entirely unbidden, and I go off to re-read his words:

    The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

    Too bad that won’t fit in a tweet ;-)

  3. Just so you know, I knocked wood for you at the start of your penultimate paragraph. You have paid eloquent tribute to the survivors of Ike and the 1900 storm. Resilience, inspiration–creativity; the human spirit cries “Up!” too. The memorial statue is a beautiful piece of sculpture. Can you tell us more about it?

    Thanks once again for a thoughtful piece.


    There’s so much wood-knocking going on along the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard it sounds like a kid’s rhythm section gone mad. Thanks for adding to our superstitious attempts!

    The statue is gorgeous. It was commissioned by the Galveston Commission for the Arts for the centennial anniversary of the storm, and dedicated on September 8, 2000. Formally titled “Place of Remembrance”, it was created by sculptor David W. Moore (a fourth-generation Gavestonian) and cast by United Metalsmiths in Houston. While it was meant to commemorate those lost at sea during the storm, it’s a perfect tribute to all victims, and cards carrying the names of those who perished were placed in a vault beneath the statue prior to the dedication.

    You can find more information about the dediction itself and a bit more history here. One of the most touching details of the ceremony is that the hymn Queen of the Waves was sung – the same song sung during the storm by The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word to calm the 93 children in their care at St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum. (Ninety of those children and ten sisters perished.)

    I know this – the saying “if you’ve seen one storm, you’ve seen them all” is true, but not in a dismissive way. This is Ike’s day, but around the country, people are remembering Ivan, Hugo, Camille, Carla, Andrew, Gustav, Katrina, Rita…. And lest we forget, there is a world that also suffers from these storms. Cyclones like Nargis barely are a blip on our mental radar, but their cost in lives far exceeds anything we’ve experienced here.

    Thanks for giving me a chance to add something about the statue. It’s a beautiful piece.


  4. What a beautiful and spiritually “uplifting” piece. Thanks for the inspiration.


    You’re welcome, and thank you for the kind words. It’s always a delight to have you stop by.


  5. Because so many people aren’t aware that it exists, I’m adding here footage shot in Galveston by an assistant to Thomas Edison in September, 1900.

    It collapses time in an instant.

  6. Wonderful idea for a post theme essay: UP.
    Rebuilding an island to be higher? Amazing story. The Marseillan sailor? another great story. So is Galveston’s story, in counterpoint with the statues you added.

    And then there are all our aspirations and spirits that go “up”, and there is the reach and lift of remarkable cathedrals, reaching “up” and, well, so many things for which “up” is correct, beautiful, poignant. This is your next book, Linda, UP.


    Some years ago, when the liturgical churches were making so many changes, many people were unhappy with the new involvement of the congregation in worship services. One woman said to her priest, “Why do you keep telling us to lift up our hearts?” “Because,” he said, “you keep forgetting to do it on your own.’

    And there you have it. There are a lot of forces working on the side of “down”, and a few reminders that “up” is possible always are in order.

    When I started thinking about it, I was tickled at how many examples of “up” are out there, including the common expression for beginning the day: “getting up”. I like that. Once a day (or twice, if we’ve had a nap) all of us get a chance to embrace “up” in our lives.


  7. Just thinking about all the work Galveston went through to “rise up” totally blows my mind, Linda. Do people today have that kind of fortitude, vision and patience? I wonder! All this reminds me of “against all odds,” and how with intention we CAN and DO rise above the storms of our lives. As they say, what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger!


    Recovery is much different these days – the absence of FEMA, federal flood insurance and windstorm coverage may have given the folks in 1900 a freedom to move on with a creativity we lack today. I mentioned elsewhere a scenario that tickles me: can you imagine someone popping up today and saying, “I know what let’s do. Let’s just raise up this island and see if we can’t prevent this from happening again.” Can you imagine the boards, the committees, the hearings, the lawyers… ?

    On the other hand, it’s clear that whatever effect an expectation of governmental involvement may have on recovery processes today, people DO have the same fortitude, vision and patience. It’s just that much of the work of recovery takes place quietly, and out of view.

    I watched the television coverage very closely over the past few days, and was interested in the differences between national mentions of Ike, and local. The national depended on some of the same highly dramatic images we’ve seen over and over – Bolivar wiped clean, debris on Galveston’s seawall, etc.
    Local coverage focused more on individual stories. They aren’t as dramatic – there’s a lot of plodding in recovery – but in the end they’re what makes the difference.


    1. So much plodding in recovery. Some people here have questioned whether private insurance and Government earthquake insurance have actually hindered recovery in post earthquake recovery in Christchurch, but…..I think I would rather have insurance, with all its aggravations, than not.

      1. Absolutely. Insurance or no insurance really doesn’t make any difference in the end. The plodding’s going to be necessary in any case. As I remember, it took nearly two months just to untangle all the boats in the marinas around here – to get them out of the water so the insurance process could begin. And there were blue tarps on roofs for a long time – certainly a year, sometimes two or three. Even people who had terrific insurance often couldn’t find workmen to take on their jobs. Then there was the permitting, and so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

        It’s a strange thing. I never want to experience another hurricane, but I’m awfully glad I had many of the experiences associated with Ike. Joy and woe woven fine, if you will.

  8. I can’t personally relate to the incredible fortitude and perseverance to physically lift a city to a new level. I am not that strong of heart or body. But maybe I’d surprise myself in the right circumstances.

    Ok, it’s not all about me.

    But I am conflicted about civilization living on coasts. While I admire Galveston’s story, and the anxiety that comes with facing hurricane season year after year, I also question the wisdom of building a city in such a region. I don’t mean to be dense or opinionated or closed minded one bit. I really question it. It is what it is now. So many of the world’s great cities are on coasts. Would I change that now? No. We would lose amazing places. But so much of the heartache and trauma and tragedy has been related to natural disasters from the sea.

    I recognize that ports are essential to commerce. I just wonder sometimes whether human ingenuity might not have been able to avoid at least some of this had “we” built just a little further inland.

    All that said, it is satisfying to read your post and think about UP in these ways.


    I didn’t mean for this to turn into such a book, but there are so many interesting and important issues here….

    There’s an old saying I love: He who will go to sea for pleasure will go off to Hell for a pastime. I suppose a corollary would be, Those who build at the sea for pleasure…

    But not only the sea tries human fortitude. After months of drought, we had rain this weekend – too much, in some places. One town that flooded was Jarrell, Texas, located north of Austin in the middle of the state. That Jarrell was there to be flooded is its own miracle. Jarrell was wiped off the map by an F5 tornado on May 27, 1997.

    On May 3, 1999, forty-four people were killed and 10,000 homes destroyed in Oklahoma City by a tornado spawned in a widespread outbreak. In the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, chronicled in John Barry’s Rising Tide, 27,000 square miles of the heartland were covered in a depth up to 30 feet and 246 people in seven states were killed. In the Northridge earthquake in 1994 there were 72 killed and 9,000 injured. The 1995 Chicago heatwave lead to the death of approximately 600 people. Billions of dollars of property damage have been done by assorted California wildfires.

    It’s a variation on Tolstoy’s famous remark about every family being unhappy in its own way – every region of the world has its natural challenges to deal with: earthquake, fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, ice storms and blizzards. In the end, there’s nowhere to run. The true challenge is to learn to deal with what Mother Nature gives us.

    Now, that said: it’s also true we’ve often exacerbated the problems by our solutions. Federal flood insurance and FEMA aid both have contributed to a casualness about building near the coast. The desire of cities to increase their tax base has encouraged development in areas that should be left as wetland – one of the best natural protections against storms. In Dean’s book, she uses Galveston’s seawall as a prime example of the way human construction can warp natural processes.

    Finally, one of the great human problems coastal areas face is that so many of their “residents” aren’t attuned to the world in which they’ve chosen to live. Folks from Dallas or Colorado Springs or Kansas City who just want a vacation home at the beach or a weekend home for entertaining often haven’t a clue about how to recognize a coming storm or deal with it when it’s passed. Education is needed – not only for new residents, but for zoning boards and state legislatures.

    As for Galveston in 1900 – the historical context makes the story even more amazing. Indianola, Texas, south of Galveston on Matagorda Bay, competed for years with Galveston to be the state’s primary port city. It was a port of entry for immigrants, and the terminus for Charles Morgan’s New York-based steamship line. Decades ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a woman who arrived there as a child with her parents, and who crossed the prairie in oxcart after the town was destroyed.

    A first hurricane destoyed Indianola in 1875. After it was rebuilt, a second storm destroyed it in 1886. At that point, most of the people dispersed, many of them going to Galveston. I don’t know this for a certainty, but I can imagine those folks, once competitors with Galveston, looking at the devastation just 14 years after Indianola was wiped off the map and saying to their new neighbors, “OK. This time, let’s just get ready for the next one.”

    It’s just part of the price of living here – you spend a lot of time getting ready for the next one.


  9. Linda! I forgot to say what a great title on this entry! You nailed it. I love it. Wouldn’t Salinger, too? (Yes, he absolutely would.)



    Ah, ha! I knew someone would pop up eventually – I carried this title around with me for a couple of months ;-)

    Maybe Mr. Salinger would love it, and maybe he wouldn’t. Gee, if he decided to sue me, I could be famous, too!


  10. Linda,

    The devastation is heartbreaking, but the resilience of the human spirit never ceases to amaze and UPlift those who survive and those who witness. You’ve managed to offer perspective here. You always do.


    Hi, Bella,

    And perspective always is shifting and developing. Since writing this, my interest kept me reading and I found someone making an interesting point: that if Galveston only had erected the seawall, they would have created for themselves the same bowl-like environment that’s such a problem for New Orleans. By erecting the seawall and raising the island, they increased their ability to survive storms.

    The more I read about the process, the more amazing it seems. Those folks had the perspective of problem solvers, for sure.


  11. For once I’m at a loss for words. :) What you said is so beautiful that the only appropriate comments seems to be ‘Amen’. I am so thankful that there was no devastating storm this year. I think we all needed a break from that devastation considering all the other things going on in the world.


    Isn’t it just the truth – that we needed a break? Some days, it seems to me as though the world’s gone mad. It may be there are days when the world thinks its inhabitants have gone mad.

    In any event, amen’s a good word to speak over all the storms of the past, and a word we’re all hoping to speak over this season as well. There are a lot of people who need a chance to just sit back and breathe.

    And speaking of sitting back and taking a deep breath, I read and appreciated your comment at Bellezza’s :-)


  12. What a marvelous storyteller you are. I discover new and wonderful things with every word you write.

    And what an “uplifting” take on the word “up.” How often do I sit on the couch and pat my knee — “Gyppy, up!” I say. And he leaps into my lap, rolls on his back and purrs. The story of your Marseille seaman speaks of rescue; your story of the puppy tells me you had a survival instinct even at a wee age. And the raising of the island — something I never knew. Golly, I love blogging. And I especially love coming here!


    “Up” isn’t so uplifting with my Dixie Rose. If I tell her “up”, she just puts her nose and her tail up in the air and stalks away.

    One of the reasons I love blogging so much is that it’s a perfect excuse for digging around in history and events. I knew that Galveston Island had been raised, but I never knew the details of the process, or connected it with the creation of one of the favorite “cruising” destinations for boater – Offatt’s bayou. It’s very deep, with a sand bottom and a lovely view of the Moody Gardens pyramids with their rain forest, butterfly display, etc., but I’d never put everything together.

    Now, when I read that “Offatts Bayou basin was created by use of this are as a borrow pit for landfill by the city of Galveston, Texas, in the first half of this century”, I have an image of Leviathan and his dredge-friends in my mind! Even a dredge deserves to have his story told!


  13. I might be a survivor. I might be an overcomer. Regardless, I have stayed in what FEMA calls a “repetitive loss community” and am currently rebuilding above the flood plain . . . which hasn’t always been a flood plain here in coastal Louisiana aka bayou country.

    Poignant writing, Linda.

    Bayou Woman

    Bayou Woman,

    I spent some time reading and enjoying your posts and photos yesterday. They helped me understand one thing I’ve noticed since Ike but hadn’t really thought about. Ditches that used to be dry between rains often have standing water now, while mud flats and little islands that used to provide cover and nesting area for birds are just gone. The wind came and went, but the water has rearranged things significantly, and now the tides are filling some ditches and covering flats more regularly than rain.

    Unfortunately, ill-considered human activity and bureacratic ineptitude can fill ditches, destroy land and multiply “repetitive loss communities” in ways a hurricane never imagined. I keep a print of the 1851 flood on Bayou Teche on my wall as a way of reminding myself of something I was told by a fellow in your state: “People used to cope with floods. Now we cause them.”

    I’ll be following along as you accomplish your own “up”.


    1. A great quote. Most of our earthquake devastation would have been avoided if our planners had been respectful of land reports that said there were areas of town that would be subject to extreme liquefaction and therefore not suitable for your average type housing.

      1. You know, I think I remember hearing that liquifaction is a problem for San Francisco – experienced in the past and feared for the future. We humans have such a gift for denying reality, particularly when we can’t see it or touch it – or, when we’ve never experienced anything like it. And we live with such illusions of control. The natural world isn’t under our control, no matter our wishes that it be so.

  14. An incredibly uplifting post. The fact that it is our instinct to UP and run makes it very counter-intuitive to follow earthquake procedures of “Drop, Cover, Hold” ;)

    1. I’ve never thought about that. In fact, I’ve always thought that, in an earthquake, the best move is to get outdoors and away from buildings. I’ve been in four in my life – three in California and one in Iowa. All were relatively light, and three were “shakers”. But one was near enough the surface that we watched the energy flow through a tile floor like a wave in the ocean. It was absolutely mezmerizing at the time, and pretty darned scary once it was over!

      1. Yes, that wave is utterly weird! And the noise! The noise is extraordinary. The trouble I have with the drop, cover, hold instruction is that once down I have awful trouble getting up again. It’s an instruction suited to youth.

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