Confused, frightened, or hungry for attention, children quickly learn the value of the single word, “Up!” Whether shouted as a demand or whispered as a plea, the word is capable of bringing adult arms down to a child’s level: ready to enfold the needy little bundle of humanity into a blanket of security, lift it high, and ensure its safety.
The urge to flee upward seems instinctive. On my third birthday, neighbors decided I should have a pet. When the time came to share cake and ice cream, they appeared at the door with a tiny puppy in a box. Black, glistening curls of fur and long floppy ears wriggled in pleasure as belly rubs and ear scratches were offered.Then, the puppy was turned loose. After making a few quick circles, the creature produced a cascade of wild yips and headed straight for me.
My escape became the stuff of family legend. Bounding upward, I landed first on a dining room chair and then atop my mother’s prized mahogany dining table, shoes and all. The puppy continued to tumble and jump, trying to follow, while I screamed in terror, refusing to be reassured. Eventually, the well-meaning neighbors made their way home with their new dog, while I scooted off the table and was consoled with a second helping of ice cream.
Fifty years later I met French Charlie, a sailor who’d had his own experience of moving ‘up’ in the world. Born in Marseilles and given to crossing the Atlantic at the first hint of boredom, he preferred single-handing in cast-off, creaky old boats. Everyone agreed he must have had angels as crew, since it was the only way to explain his survival.
Charlie liked to say he’d made five-and-a-half crossings of the Atlantic. The phrase ‘half-a-crossing’ always got someone’s attention, giving Charlie a chance to tell his favorite story: how he left Marseilles in a bathtub of a boat; how one failure led to another; how, ankle-deep in Atlantic waters, he radioed for help before clambering to the top of his boat to hang onto the mast and await death.
With his boat slowing sinking beneath him, his angels brought a Danish freighter to his side. “What do you need?” called the First Officer, leaning over the railing in amazement. “Up!” Charlie responded, in the wavering tones of a brave five-year-old. Taken aboard the freighter, he watched his boat sink beneath the waves. Not long after, he decided coastal cruising might be more to his liking, and he left the open ocean behind.
Again and again, the impulse to head ‘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 begins running upward: scrambling from stairwell to balcony to the rooftop where he survives, witnessing 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 Houstonian clambers with his children from tabletop to stepstool to attic, where he watches the swirling water fill his house while he waits for the deluge to cease.
Terrified by Katrina’s second surge, thousands of people fled to their rooftops, blessing the Coast Guard, neighbors, and perfect strangers who rescued them by water and by air.
During the passage of hurricane Ike, a couple who’d chosen to stay in their home climbed from first to second to third floors until, as the storm’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 billboards sank beneath the flooding tide. Only the circling currents and wind-driven waves reflected the hazy moon.
In the face of rising storms, heading to higher ground is a reasonable choice. But while people can move, structures don’t. In the Storm of 1900, Galveston learned that painful lesson. Not only their most vulnerable dwellings were destoyed. Substantial homes, churches, public buildings, and schools were ravaged equally, leaving the survivors with a decision. Would they run from the devastation, seeking new homes on the mainland? Or would the city itself move away from the coast in order to re-establish itself as an inland center of commerce?
In fact, Galveston chose a third option. Detailed by Cornelia Dean in her book Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches, Galvestonians determined to stay on their island, avoiding future calamity by instituting a remarkable plan.
Rather than retreating from the shifting sands to points higher elsewhere, the city decided to fence itself off from future disasters with a seawall. Everything inside [the seawall] – 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. A total of 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 ~ Rosenberg Library
Once the seawall had been built and the city floated above its island like a cloud, the process of grade-raising began. A canal dredged through the city center obtained fill from Galveston Bay. Dredges moved continually between harbor and canal, spewing out a slurry of water and sand on both sides in a lengthy process that required years of labor. During those years, people lived, conducted business, and attended worship in their ‘floating’ buildings, making their way around town on boardwalks fastened to the top of fences.
The largest of four dredges was given the humorous nickname Leviathan, and gardeners grew oleanders atop their roofs until new 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 ~ 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 series of hurricanes, Galveston’s seawall held, and their tradition of self-reliance held firm.
Up and down Gulf beaches and bay shorelines, people in surrounding communities encouraged and supported one another through the recovery processes. Through the years, an increasingly important element in that recovery has been the elevation of homes. In San Leon, Bacliff, Oak Island, Surfside, Clear Lake Shores, and Kemah — in all the towns and villages of southeast Texas — the wisdom spray-painted onto one of Hurricane Ike’s still-abandoned homes is cherished: “Move Up ~ Don’t Give Up”.
Today, elevation happens differently — no dredges are 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. 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 work the soil, hanging petunias and bougainvillea for color. Families incorporate bits and pieces of personal history into new construction while pondering questions washed up by the surge: How shall we reshape 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 years unmarked by the anguish and devastation of a major hurricane, the lessons of Galveston’s Great 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 our minds and coats our spirits 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, unnerving us as surely as the worst storms of the season. Remembering those who both endured and prevailed over the natural world, we may find our own 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.