In Harvey's path, Texans know the power of storms

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  • James C. Moore: Harvey's landfall in Texas will be an historical reminder of how the state has been shaped by hurricanes and meteorological tragedy
  • Texans live with these storms and their superlative descriptions and we remember their power, Moore writes

James C. Moore is a business consultant and principal at Big Bend Strategies, a business development firm. He has authored four books on Texas politics and has written and reported on the state's government and history for four decades. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When the great-named storms surge against the Texas coast, the rising water might stir up a few ghosts. Harvey's landfall, not far from Matagorda Bay, will be an historical reminder of how the state has been shaped by hurricanes and meteorological tragedy.

James C. Moore
About midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi, Matagorda Bay became the site of a thriving settlement during America's westward expansion. A port named Indianola, founded in 1846, grew quickly to 5,000 residents, and was a destination point for the Morgan steamer lines of New York City. The town site felt protected from the Gulf of Mexico by barrier islands and its location a few miles inland, and it began to grow and prosper.
Docks were built to carry a train out to meet ship passengers; four newspapers were publishing the year before the town was incorporated in 1852; German immigrants by the thousands landed at Indianola and moved inland to settle farms; fine places of dining and hotels did bustling business; and in 1869 the world's first mechanically refrigerated shipment of beef went from Indianola to New Orleans.
    And then the first hurricane arrived.
    On September 16, 1875, a storm described by a Kansas paper as "the most severe flood since the days of Noah," destroyed Indianola. The loss of life was never accurately calculated, but the community once described as "The Queen City of the West," was devastated by wind and water.
    "We are destitute, and our town is gone," District Attorney D.W. Curin said in a message pleading for help. "One tenth of the people are gone. Dead bodies are strewn for twenty miles along the bay. Nine tenths of the houses are destroyed. Send us help, for God's sake."
    Indianola rebuilt. But it was doomed to become a victim of its geography. Eleven years later, on August 19, 1886, another hurricane moved into the bay and pushed water with wind and made meaningless all the dreams born on that low, sandy spot. The loss was turned even more profound by a fire caused by a windblown lantern.
    Indianola might have become a great American city had it built a seawall, a lesson which Galveston had not learned when the island was inundated by a 1900 storm. "The Great Galveston Hurricane" killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people and remains the worst natural disaster in American history. The tidal surge was estimated at 15 feet on the back of 145 mph winds, which destroyed 3,600 homes.
    Galveston's weather bureau director at the time, Isaac Cline, had written an 1891 article for the island's daily newspaper to make an argument no seawall was needed because a hurricane of significant strength would never strike the island. Cline has been immortalized in ignominy by Erik Larson's book on the Galveston hurricane, which names the tragedy "Isaac's Storm."
    Giant hurricanes appear attracted by our outsized state. The worst storm ever recorded in the US on the Hurricane Severity Index was Carla, which made landfall in September 1961 at Port O'Connor with a recorded, constant wind speed of 180 mph. Carla made another kind of history when young TV journalist Dan Rather had a camera pointed at a radar screen over his improvised map of the Gulf of Mexico. He showed the cyclone reaching almost from Florida to Texas, and launched his career as a CBS News correspondent with his ingenuity.
    Texans live with these storms and their superlative descriptions and we remember their power. We know Ike and Celia and Allison and Bonnie and Beulah and all the others with their benign and unforgettable names, and we won't forget what they have done to our lives. Our collective sense of helplessness has become more instructive through the years. We tend now toward readiness.
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    In 1977, I hid out on South Padre Island after it had been ordered evacuated and called in network radio reports from a phone booth as Hurricane Anita made landfall. The exposure led to a TV news career, and a few decades later, I was broadcasting the story of Indianola.
    Our camera showed an historic plaque at the town site, an old cistern, once a source of fresh water, and a concrete piling that had helped hold up the great docks that reached out to meet arriving ships.
    But what we could not record, or ever communicate, was what might have been.