The destruction of Gilchrist
Many of you have probably seen the photo of Gilchrist, Texas showing complete destruction of the town of 750 people, save for one lone home. High-resolution satellite imagery made available by NOAA's National Geodetic Survey (Figure 1) confirm that of the approximately 1000 structures existing in the town before Hurricane Ike, only about five survived the hurricane. Approximately 200 of these buildings were homes, and it is thought that some of the residents attempted to ride out the storm in their homes. According to media reports, about 34 survivors from Gilchrist and the neighboring communities of Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar have been fished out of Galveston Bay in the past few days. Rescuers who have reached Gilchrist have not been able to find any victims in the debris because there is no debris. Ike's storm surge knocked 99.5% of the 1,000 buildings in Gilchrist off their foundations and either demolished them or washed them miles inland into the swamplands behind Gilchrist. Until search teams can locate the debris of what was once was Gilchrist, we will not know the fate of those who may have stayed behind to ride out the storm.
Why did Gilchrist get destroyed?
It's rare to see a town so completely destroyed by a hurricane, to the point where you can't even see the wreckage. The neighboring towns of Crystal Beach, to the south, and High Island, to the north, were also mostly destroyed, but weren't swept clean of nearly all structures and wreckage. This is because Gilchrist was built in an unusually vulnerable place. It's bad enough to situate your town on a low-lying peninsula, as was the case for Crystal Beach. But in Gilchrist's case, the town was located at the narrowest point of the Bolivar Peninsula, at a point where it was only a few hundred meters wide (Figure 2). Not only did Gilchrist suffer a head-on assault by Ike's direct storm surge of 14+ feet, topped by 20' high battering waves, the town also suffered a reverse surge once the hurricane had passed. As Ike moved to the north, the counter-clockwise flow of wind around the storm pushed Galveston Bay's waters back across the town of Gilchrist from northwest to southeast. This second surge of water likely finished off anything the main storm surge had left.
Will Gilchrist be rebuilt?
I hope the government will see fit to buy up the land that was once the town of Gilchrist and make it into a park. Building a town in Gilchrist's location makes as much sense as building a town on the sides of an active volcano. (Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who have done just that, such as on the slopes of Vesuvius in Italy). If past history is any guide, Gilchrist will be rebuilt, and it will take another mighty hurricane to permanently take down the town. That was the case for the town of Indianola, Texas, which lay in a vulnerable low-lying location on the shores of Matagorda Bay in the mid-1800's. Indianola was the second largest port in the state of Texas, and home to 5,000 people. In 1875, a powerful Category 3 hurricane piled up a huge storm surge as it came ashore in Indianola. The surge destroyed 3/4 of the town's 2,000 buildings, and killed 176 people. The city was rebuilt, but in 1886, a devastating Category 4 hurricane swept almost the entire town of Indianola into Matagorda Bay, killing another 250 townspeople. The people of Indianola finally gave up and moved elsewhere, and the ruins of their town now lie under fifteen feet of water in Matagorda Bay.