NOAA Photo Library - Homes Destroyed by the Storm Surge - Galveston, TX 1900
On September 8, 1900, a killer category 4 hurricane struck 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.galveston
The deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history ripped into the "Wall street of the South" killing some 8,000 men, women and children and wiping away 12 city blocks -- nearly three-quarters of the island city of Galveston, Texas.
Linda MacDonald, whose late grandfather lived through the Great Storm, remembers the stories he told of how, as a six-year-old boy, he rode out the tempest in his father's bakery as winds howled and waves crashed. "He could hear children calling for their mothers, women screaming for help and men begging for mercy from God," said MacDonald, a Galveston native and an amateur expert on the storm. "He said he could hear sounds that were very faint, then they grew louder and louder, then the sound abruptly cut off, and he knew galveston 1900 hurricane photos someone's life had ended."
However the killer storm did not come without warning. Days before the hurricane reached Texas, telegraph reports received in Galveston told of the havoc the storm caused in the Caribbean. Sailors arrived in port talking of the stormy seas.
"People in Galveston knew that there was a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. It was reported in the Galveston County Daily News but they didn't know where the storm would make landfall," said historian Casey Greene. Some historians say people's attitude increased the number of fatalities.
"That's one of the reasons so many people lost their lives: complacency," said Greene.
In 1900, Galveston was stuck on itself, boasting Texas' first post office, telephones, and medical college. There was more money in Galveston than in Newport, Rhode Island.
Downtown was packed with ornate office buildings, many on The Strand, known then as the "Wall Street of the Southwest." Galveston was the hub of a booming cotton export trade because it had the only deep-water port in Texas at the time. City streets led to imposing Greek Revival, Romanesque and Italianate mansions. Street cars ran along the beach. Bathhouses jutted out like sentinels in the gulf.
"There was this great sense of hubris that America and Galveston -- Galveston in particular --was going places, could do no wrong," said Erik Larson, author of "Isaac's Storm."
Isaac was U.S. Weather Bureau climatologist Isaac Cline, who dismissed as absurd the notion that a hurricane could devastate Galveston. His stance discouraged the town from building a sea wall. The day before the hurricane arrived, warning flags were raised as huge waves pounded the shores, barometric pressure dropped rapidly and high fish-scale-shaped clouds moved inland.
Before dawn September 8, the water crept ashore and kept rising, despite strengthening north winds that should have repelled the storm. By now, Cline was worried. "Unusually heavy swells from the southeast.... Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously," he wrote in a telegram to the bureau's headquarters in Washington. But less than half the population evacuated the island and some sightseers even came over from Houston to view the spectacle of the huge and powerful surf.
Cline rode down the beach in a horse-drawn buggy, warning people to get to the mainland. But for most, it was too late. A steamship broke free of its moorings and destroyed three bridges to the mainland. As people fled to higher ground, waves raged inward from both the gulf and the bay. Homes disintegrated and rushing waters swept people away. Cline's aides measured speeds of 100 mph before their anemometer was blown away, and the wind would eventually peak at 150 mph.
"The roofs of the houses and timbers were flying through the streets as though they were paper and it appeared suicidal to attempt a journey through the flying timbers," Cline wrote later that month in a report to his superiors. St. Mary's Orphanage, home to 93 children and 10 Catholic nuns, stood near the beach and was one of the first buildings to succumb to the storm. The only survivors were three boys who managed to cling to an uprooted tree as it was tossed around by the rising waters.
Water continued to rise until the whole island was submerged by 3 p.m. and by midnight waves 15 high tore buildings apart with contemptuous ease. Cline's own home, battered by the waves and heavy debris, eventually collapsed.
"My residence went down with about 50 persons who had sought it out for safety and all but 18 were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building," Cline wrote in his report. Almost a month would pass before Cora May Cline's body was found among the mounds of debris that littered the city.
Cline himself nearly drowned but recovered and found himself clinging to his youngest child. His brother Joseph had grabbed Cline's other two children and they managed to keep afloat for three hours on wreckage until the worst of the storm had passed. Rich and poor alike huddled together in ornate mansions such as "Bishop's Palace." Still standing today, its strong walls saved the lives of some 200 people.
Others had desperately clung to life.
"Some of them were on rooftops. some of them were in trees, some of them were hanging on to logs and stuff in the water," Maybelle Doolin remembers from her family's history.
Doolin's father and his three step brothers spent hours in a row boat pulling people from the debris filled water; they are credited with saving 200 lives.
Historians don't know exactly how many people perished, but they believe it could have been as many as 10,000. Nearly everyone lost family and friends.
After the storm's fury had passed and the water receded, survivors stared in disbelief at human and animal corpses strewn among piles of smashed timber and masonry.
There were too many dead to bury, so the remains were initially weighted down and dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. But the bodies floated back to shore and were eventually burned in funeral pyres.
"If you can imagine walking out your back door -- and where you ordinarily see somebody's yard, kids playing and houses and the streets and all that stuff -- what you would most likely have seen is a pile in which your neighbors where at that very moment being incinerated," said Erick Larson.
Human remains were found as late as February of 1901.
Months after the hurricane, Galveston started construction on a 17-foot-high, 3-mile-long sea wall. Phase one of the project cost.6 million dollars, an astronomical amount at the time.
Civil engineers also raised Galveston's elevation, the highest point of which before the storm was less than nine feet above sea level. Thousands of homes and buildings were propped up so earth could be filled in underneath, a method that raised some structures as high as 17 feet.
Galveston is a city built on sand at the eastern end of a 30-mile-long island, two miles off the Texas coast. It remains vulnerable today despite the sea wall.
Constant vigilance is maintained during the June-November hurricane season because it would take more than 40 hours to evacuate the 65,000 people to the mainland.
Anyone who failed to heed a call to evacuate would be at the storm's mercy because the causeway to the mainland is closed when winds reach tropical storm strength of 39 mph.
"We have a name for people like that. We call them statistics. There's nothing that important to risk your life for," said city emergency management chief William Zagorski.
While Galveston succeeded in rebuilding after the storm, it would never regain its former prominence as one of the wealthiest communities in the nation. As a major Texas city, it was soon overshadowed by the emergence of nearby Houston as a center for the Texas oil industry and as a major port following the completion in 1914 of a ship channel that linked it directly to the Gulf of Mexico.
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