GALVESTON – Former Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas, who led the city
during Hurricane Ike and in the long recovery from the storm's
devastation, died Wednesday after a long illness with a rare form of
cancer. She was 80.
Thomas died about 2 p.m. at her home, said Trey Click, a family friend.
Thomas was one of the city's most popular
politicians, serving 12 years on the City Council as a council member
and mayor. She was also a member of the Kempner family, one of three
influential families whose members have helped shape Galveston
throughout its history.
"She was the
matriarch of our generation who helped lead our family in our
philanthropic giving and in teaching us the true values of caring for
others," said Robert Lynch, her cousin and board president of the Harry
and Eliza Kempner Fund.
Click, who worked closely with Thomas, said he was impressed by "how much she loved her family first and her city second."
As mayor, Thomas guided the island city through two
hurricanes. As Hurricane Rita strengthened to a Category 5 storm on a
course headed straight for Galveston in 2005, Thomas declared a state of
emergency and ordered an evacuation. Rita veered northwest hours before
it could strike Galveston, coming ashore instead at Sabine Pass on
The evacuation order, combined with similar orders in
the Houston area, led to an exodus of 2.5 million people, clogging
roads and leading to at least 107 deaths.
Three years later and with the memory of the
Hurricane Rita evacuation fresh in her memory, Thomas reluctantly
ordered the evacuation of Galveston three days before Hurricane Ike
struck the island on Sept. 13, 2008, damaging 70 percent of the
buildings in the city.
"I think about how when we were evacuating from Ike,
how she took care of everyone," Click said. Realizing that many wouldn't
evacuate without their pets, she ordered that pets be included in the
evacuation order, Click recalled.
Nearly a third of the city's inhabitants ignored the
order and many had to be rescued while several died. Thomas was
criticized for barring residents from returning to the island for the
first two weeks after the storm, fearing it would hamper recovery
"She never wavered and she never lost her cool," said
Mary Jo Naschke, city spokeswoman during Hurricane Ike and a friend of
Thomas. "Every time she came under fire I was right there ... She
listened before she talked, she measured what she said."
The City Council under Thomas had set up a borrowing
contingency in anticipation of a powerful storm like Ike. This provided
the city with instant access to emergency funds to keep the government
running as it recovered from the deadly disaster.
"There would be no one other than she who could have
helped lead us out of the devastation of Hurricane Ike," Lynch said.
"She was a leader for us all, in family and city, and someone who will
be very, very hard to replace."
A Galveston native, Thomas was elected to the
District 4 seat on the City Council in 1998 and held office for three
consecutive two-year terms, the most allowed under the city's term
limits. She was elected mayor in 2004 and remained in office for the
three consecutive two-year terms allowed by law, stepping down in 2010.
Her long list of honors included the Spirit of Elissa
Award from the Galveston Historical Foundation; the Community
Enrichment Award from the Grand 1894 Opera House; the Pacesetter and
Quality of Life Awards from Clean Galveston; the People of Vision Award
(with her family) from Prevent Blindness; and the Brotherhood Award from
Reedy Chapel AME Church.
"Most people remember her as Mayor but she had a
lifetime of tireless efforts behind the scenes," Mayor James D.
Yarbrough said in a written statement. "She truly was one of our
She is survived by a sister, Penny Guttersen of
Greeley, Colo; two sons, Taylor Thomas of Galveston and Ian Thomas of
San Francisco; a daughter, Eliza Thomas Quigley of Galveston; and two
grandchildren. Information on services was not immediately available.