The Great Storm

On September 8, 1900, The Gulf of Mexico joined the waters of Galveston Bay to completely cover the island and destroy the Texas coastal city of Galveston. This hurricane would become the greatest natural disaster, by number of deaths, in United States history: 8,000 by accepted figures, perhaps as many as 12,000. Of that total, 6,000 perished in Galveston alone. The tragedy killed more Americans than any other natural disaster, indeed, more than the legendary Johnstown Flood, the San Francisco Earthquake, the 1938 New England Hurricane and the Great Chicago Fire combined.
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Beyond
the rusted
wrought-iron gate,
white tablets
                     stand
in limestone casts
a silent
             cromlech
to that
          1900
                  Night

Night of
darkness
                   darkest
darkness

Night
pierced only
by phosphorous bolts
hurled to Earth
by the
             nameless
storm

Phosphorous
                     flash
illuminating the
                         flight
of tin
roofs made
                  guilliotines
for the
           flailing
horses
they once
               sheltered

Phosphorous
                    flash
illuminating the
                         flight
of orphans
                  ninety
tied to trees

Trees
whose roots
could not
               hold
Trees
whose branches
could not
               endure
the bedsheet
                    ropes
and cast
their
       precious
cargo
to the
          wind
on the
          sea

Night of
noise
            noisome
noise

Ten thousand
                      demons
screaming
in the
         dark
swallowing the
cries for
             Mother
             Help
             Mercy

Ten thousand
                      demons
engulfing
the solid
              scream
of the
          one hundred
Orphans

Only the
              bell
The Ursuline Convent
                                  bell
rang
       constant
through the
                   night

Above the
                demon
screams
carillon
            carrying
voices
        of nuns
        of Sisters
a hymn
a prayer
a plea
          a lullabye
for the
           dying
“Queen of the Waves
Look forth across the ocean”

But the
             Queen
did not
            look
not until the
                    passing
of the
          night
that
       dark
       noisome
night

And in the
light of
            day
She
      watched
She
       saw
the few
            living
women
children
leave the
               ruined
island
Leave the
               New York
of the Gulf

Leave it
to the
          Men
fifteen hundred
                        Men
left to
clear the
              Six
              Eight
              Ten
 Thousand
                   Dead

She
       watched
She
        saw
Black men
first generation
                              Freemen
forced at
                  White
                  Winchester
gunpoint
to load
              drays
To make
              processions
To fill
            barges
Three
            barges
with
The Dead
the endless
                 Dead

She
        watched
She
       saw
The barges
                 drift
Atop the
              quiet
Bay
until the
             Men
Black men
under
             White
Winchester point
lovingly
             lowered
The Dead
the weighted
                    Dead
into the
                 Sea

She
       watched
She
      saw
The Dead
               return
with the
             Sun
afloat
        awash
The Dead
               riding
the tops
of the
low-crested
                   waves
to litter
the splintered
                      Shore
The Dead
               refusing
to be
        drowned
again

She
       watched
She
      saw
through a
                Sky
thick with
the scent of
                   camphor
thick with
the smell of
                   rotting
                   flesh
       (Human)
       (Animal)
Thick with
the mist of
                  Phenol
Thick with
the dust of
                  Lime

She
       watched
She
      saw
The Men
The
        fifteen hundred
Men
        Black
        White
luxury of
               prejudice
Gone
           Fifteen hundred
Men
armed only
with the
             drunkenness
of whiskey
the
      drunkeness
of grief
shielded only
by the
sharp scented
                      bags
hung ’round
the neck
              powerless
amulets
against the
                 stench
of their
            rotting
brethren

She
       watched
She
       saw
The Men
                  White
                  Black
pry open
             bloated
mouths
            praying
teeth might tell
                         Father
                         Mother
                         Sister
                         Brother
                                   Child
And when
teeth
did not
            speak

She
       watched
She
        saw
The Men
              Black
              White
stack the
sea-borne
                corpses
and set
            ablaze
Friends
Lovers
              Family

The peculiar
                   scent
Of burning
                 flesh
familiar
in the
         air
of another
                Night

c.sdmrogers 2008