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History repeats itself

As part of her research for the chapter in “Forgotten” that compares the 1900 Storm with Hurricane Ike, Rhiannon spent hours in the Rosenberg Library reading the firsthand accounts of people who survived that disastrous storm. We already knew about many of the connections between the two storms. But we had no idea about the similarities in the response to the ongoing recovery from around the nation. Like it has today, Galveston slowly recovered from the 1900 Storm without much notice from the rest of the country. Other disasters quickly captured the nation’s attention and eclipsed Galveston’s suffering.

First Baptist Church Pastor William Mercer Harris gave a fiery speech to a meeting of Baptist pastors just 14 months after the 1900 Storm. He beseeched the men to make good on their promise to raise $15,000 to help rebuild the island’s churches. He didn’t expect to have to remind them of Galveston’s great need, but a conversation with another minister six months earlier reminded him how quickly people forget others’ pain.

Eight months after the 1900 Storm, a devastating fire swept through Jacksonville, Florida, wiping out 2,000 buildings and 146 square blocks. The fire left 10,000 homeless and 25 dead. The other pastor, speaking to Harris at the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans just days after the fire, told the Galveston preacher he reckoned the island’s storm was almost as bad as Jacksonville’s calamity. His companion’s short memory shocked Harris, who reminded him that more than 6,000 lost their lives during the hurricane, which also left about $17 million in damage, compared to Jacksonville’s $12 million in damage.

So when Harris rose to address the gathering of Baptist ministers six months later, he knew convincing them to care about Galveston would be difficult.

“Anything like accurate and vivid memory with respect to even the greatest calamities soon fades from the minds of men,” he told them.

That statement is as accurate and piercing today as it was 109 years ago.

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