The wind screamed through this gulf port city with mounting fury Wednesday night, its sounds punctuated by the hollow crunch of roadside signs falling, the clatter of steel fencing being ripped up and the heavy thumps of pine trees going down.
As if a giant had smashed this city of 60,000 people, Hurricane Alicia's rain, tides and winds dealt millions of dollars' worth of damage to Galveston in a few hours.
Tonight, the island's electricity and most telephones were dead. Thousands of houses and businesses were badly damaged: roofs gone, windows shattered, contents strewn everywhere. From the ramshackle homes of the poor to the new $200,000 beach-front condominiums, the hurricane's havoc touched every part of this 27-mile-long island.
An 8 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew was in force, and National Guardsmen moved in to maintain order. Police reported more than a dozen arrests for looting.
Miraculously, no one here was killed, and no serious injuries have been reported.
Although about 6,000 people left their homes beginning Tuesday night as Alicia gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, most Galveston residents hunkered down in their houses.
They faced raging surf, 115-mph winds and tides 12 feet above normal that left much of this city beneath a foot or more of water by morning. But they stayed put, without major complaint and, except for a fire in a cotton warehouse, without other major problems.
The people here are a stubborn, hardy breed of watermen: shrimpers, dockworkers, offshore oil rig crews, pilots and boatmen of all kinds who divide the world between BOIs ("born on the island") and the rest of humanity.
The high tides swept into the city's storm sewers, backing up the rainwater and flooding hundreds of streets. Manholes and storm drains brought water to the surface instead of carrying it to the gulf.
The overloaded sanitary and storm sewers are expected to cause major pollution problems in the gulf and the Houston Ship Channel and all around Galveston Island. But the city's drinking water is piped in from Houston, about 50 miles to the north, and was said to be safe.
About 3,000 residents spent Wednesday night in Red Cross shelters set up in several high schools. They voluntarily evacuated endangered low-lying areas along the gulf and the ship channel.
Many of their homes were flooded to a depth of 3 feet or more. The water table on this sandy island normally lies only 2 feet below ground. Galveston has no basements, and many homes are built on stilts.
The city's greatest problem resulted from massive power failures that left almost all residences and municipal centers without power beginning about 10 p.m. Wednesday. Traffic lights were out and the ringing of hundreds of burglar alarms mingled with the sounds of the wind.
Abandoned cars, stalled trucks, power boats, skiffs and dinghies lined streets and yards, many blown there by the wind. Thousands of palm trees, ponderosa pines and ornamental bushes and trees were toppled or had lost branches.
"Hard to believe we've already had this and the storm season hasn't even begun," said Gene Curry, manager of the Southern Union Gas' Galveston operation. "I don't even want to think what might be ahead."
The hurricane, the first of the season, has dealt the city an especially harsh blow. In recent years millions of dollars have been earmarked for restoration of the ornate but peeling homes and edifices of the city's historic old town.
Galveston is in the midst of a major tourist boom, and condominiums by the hundreds are under construction on the flats and bayous west of the 12-mile-long sea wall.
Alicia spared none of these unprotected high-priced dwellings. For five miles along the gulf coast new houses on stilts and new condominium developments were heavily hit by the storm. A number of condominiums had their roofs torn off, sliding glass doors shattered, porches ripped off and garages demolished.
Some of these homes, owned by well-to-do Houstonians for vacation retreats, had been emptied by the hurricane. With their roofs peeled back and their glass sides gone, family possessions--sofas, rugs, mattresses, pictures, kitchen equipment--had been blown outside and plastered against the chain-link fence along Seawall Boulevard, hundreds of yards away.
The surf hoisted off half of the wooden fishing pier that jutted 200 yards into the gulf. Another fishing pier, made of concrete, survived.
On Tuesday night, as Alicia lay offshore, scores of BOIs trooped to the pier and cast their hooks into the water trying for the "bull" red drum, a tasty game fish that can weigh up to 50 pounds and prefers to feed in the roiling water and high surf before a storm.
With the winds still gusting around 40 mph through the day as the hurricane moved north, Galvestonians concentrated on picking up tree branches and other debris impeding traffic.
Cleanup and repair will take weeks, but by mid-afternoon many of the city's main streets, including Seawall Boulevard and Broadway, were alive with traffic as residents resumed their errands or drove around to gawk.
A number of shrimp boats sheltering in Offutt's Bayou in the exposed western part of the island had sunk at the dock. High water flooding out of the bayou made the streets there impassable to any vehicle but a large truck.
"When are you going to turn off the water?" a Galveston fireman yelled at a Southern Union Gas Co. team that rode by high and dry in the cab of its repair truck. The fireman, in his yellow slicker, was wading to work through more water than he could pump in a lifetime.
Bill Cowart, who sells ultralight aircraft, pulled into a gas station at the center of town, looking for a telephone. He wanted to call his brother, Ray, who had been forced to flee his house on the exposed western end of Galveston Island. Bill Cowart was asked why his brother lived in a place where flood insurance is a major topic of conversation.
"Well, it's okay when there's no storm," he replied.
Meanwhile, Curry was fretting about the same thing. He lives in Pirates' Cove, an unincorporated development well beyond the protection of the 15-foot-high sea wall. The sea wall was built after the disastrous hurricane of 1900, which killed 6,000 here.
While building the sea wall, Galveston residents also used dredged material to raise the center of the island an average of 9 feet to protect themselves further from gulf storms.
The system has worked well. Curry, who has lived all over the Southwest and taken pains to learn the history of each place he has lived, said Galveston was hit in 1915 by a storm fiercer than the 1900 one. But only two persons died. The same has been true for other major hurricanes and now, with Alicia, there has been no loss of life.
Galveston, the history of which stretches back 455 years to the Spanish conquistadors, first figured prominently in American history after the battle of New Orleans, when the pirate Jean Lafitte fled here. He built a fort on the island and for a time made war on the local Indians. That was a tactical error.
The Indians turned out to be the only cannibals in North America--they ate two of Lafitte's pirate crew. He left for more hospitable places, and the city was incorporated in 1839. Until the devastating hurricane of 1900, Galveston was a dominant seaport here. But after the disaster Houston forged ahead and remains the principal Texas port.