The worst natural disaster before Hurricane Katrina struck Galveston in 1900. This hurricane flooded the island where Galveston was located, destroyed buildings, and caused the loss of 8,000 lives.
Galveston, Texas, was the site of the worst natural disaster ever to strike the United States up to that time. On the eighth of September 1900 a hurricane with wind speeds of more than 140 mph created a twenty-foot storm surge that covered the entire island on which Galveston stood. At least 8,000 people died, more than lost their lives in any one of the Chicago Fire, the Johnstown Flood, or the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Thousands of buildings were destroyed. U.S. Weather Bureau forecasters believed the storm would travel northeast and affect the mid-Atlantic coast.
This was based on an assumption that when storms begin to curve in a particular direction they continue on that course. Weather forecasting in 1900 was largely amateurish. Few of today’s technological tools were available. Cuban forecasters disagreed with their U.S. counterparts. They were convinced that the hurricane would continue to move to the west. Unfortunately, there was little cooperation between the U.S. and Cuban forecasters and the U.S. view prevailed.
Early on the Saturday morning of the eighth, the level of the ocean continued to rise despite only partly cloudy skies. Largely because of this weather condition as well as the weakness of the warnings that came in, few residents paid much attention to the threatening storm. Forecasters at the U.S. Weather Service had seen their earlier prediction fail. The storm had not reached Florida and the East Coast, and reports were coming in from stations along the Gulf Coast showing clearly that a storm was moving westward in the Gulf.
The warnings that came in from the Weather Service never used the word hurricane. There was a reason for not using this term. The Director of the U.S. Weather Service in Galveston had long been convinced that Galveston would never be seriously damaged by a tropical storm. Thus, by Saturday afternoon few people had left the city across Galveston’s bridges to the mainland. By the time people became fully aware of the impending disaster it was too late to attempt an escape. Throughout the afternoon and into the early evening, as the sea level rose and wind speed increased, people sought shelter in homes and large buildings.
Galveston in 1900 was a major port, about fifty miles southeast of Houston, on the northeast end of the thirty-two-mile-long Galveston Island. Highways and ferries linked the city to other places. With a population of 42,000 and an annual growth rate of 3 percent it was the most important city of Texas, just as New Orleans was for Louisiana, and it competed with Houston to gain recognition as the state’s premier port. One newspaper called it the New York of the Gulf. However, it was a city on an island where the average elevation of the land was five feet above sea level, only slightly higher than New Orleans.
Furthermore, the coastal area offshore to the south of Galveston is shallow for a great distance and the water is therefore warmer than in deep water. As the hurricane neared landfall it was greatly strengthened by this warm water. Of even greater importance to the citizens of Galveston on this Saturday in the year 1900 was the fact that a storm had hit the island about sixty years earlier, totally submerging it to such a degree that ships were able to sail across it.
The twenty-foot storm surge of water that swept over the island in the evening of the eighth of September, fifteen feet above the elevation of the land, leveled everything in its path with wind, waves, and the debris it collected. Houses on the waterfront were the first to go and, as they disintegrated, their timbers became flying missiles that were lethal for anyone in their path and weapons of destruction against any structures farther inland that were still standing.
Very few buildings survived this onslaught. No one thought that the hurricane would be so violent because no one had given the city any indication of its strength. All telegraph communication between the island and the mainland had been cut off by mid-afternoon. A ship at sea close to Galveston was battered by the storm and almost unable to stay afloat. It recorded a very low level of air pressure, only slightly higher than 28.47 inches, the one registered at Galveston during the storm. This ship had no means of transmitting this valuable information to shore, always an accurate indication of a storm’s strength, because the techniques of wireless that had been invented in the late 1990s were not yet installed in ships.
Isaac Cline was the U.S. Weather Bureau’s director in Galveston, the person who had said, nine years earlier, that it was absurd to imagine that his city would ever be seriously damaged by a storm. As the city was being destroyed he gathered his family and forty-five others around him within his house. Shortly afterward the house collapsed. Cline, his brother, and three others were among the eighteen of the fifty who survived by clinging to pieces of debris. Most of those who died had drowned or been crushed as the waves pounded the debris that had been their homes hours earlier.
Many survived the storm itself, but died after being trapped for several days under the wreckage of the city. Rescuers were unable to reach them. On the mainland on the other side of Galveston Bay no news of the disaster reached the rest of the country for two days until one of the few ships that survived the storm sailed into Galveston Bay. Messages were sent to the State Governor Joseph Sayers and the U.S. President William Mc- Kinley.
The bodies were so numerous that arrangements for individual burials were impossible. Funeral pyres were set up wherever the dead were found. These pyres burned for weeks. Survivors set up temporary shelters in surplus U.S. Army tents along the shore. Others constructed lumber homes from the debris. Within four days, basic water service was restored and Western Union began providing minimal telegraph service. Within three weeks, cotton was again being shipped out of the port. Reconstruction work began almost immediately.
A massive seventeen-foot seawall was built along the entire Gulf side of the city, extending along the coast for eight miles. The most extraordinary effort of reconstruction was the raising of the level of the city. Dredged sand was used to accomplish this feat, bringing the whole city to a height of seventeen feet above sea level. Many buildings, including St. Patrick’s Church, were restored to their places in the city, now at the new elevation. In the year 2001, the American Society of Civil Engineers honored the reconstruction work by naming it a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark. In 1915, a hurricane of the same strength as the hurricane of 1900 struck Galveston. It brought a twelve-foot storm surge and the new seawall was able to repel it. Two hundred and seventy-five people lost their lives in this storm.