A storm surge of twelve feet inundated the business district of the city to a depth of six feet and killed 275 people.
A monstrous hurricane formed near the Cape Verde Islands on August 4, 1915, and moved just south of the Greater Antilles, reaching the Texas coast near Galveston on August 16. In Galveston many people, with memories of the 1900 hurricane still fresh in their minds, left town as soon as it was clear that the storm would hit Galveston. Storm surges of twelve feet were seen at Galveston, inundating the business district to a depth of five or six feet. Many houses were demolished and all beach houses were washed away. Overall this hurricane, one that was a category 4 hurricane as it touched down, caused a great deal of destruction in its path, leaving 275 people dead and causing $50 million dollars’ worth of damage.
In Galveston, with strong winds, tides nine feet above normal, and a storm surge of sixteen feet, the ten-foot-high seawall built after the 1900 hurricane was unable to withstand the volume of water. It was partly damaged and this led to severe flooding in different parts of the city and the removal of twenty-five feet of the beach close to the seawall. Close to three hundred homes outside the seawall were destroyed. Despite the damage done to it, the seawall did achieve widespread protection for the city as a whole as evidenced by the low death toll compared with 1900.
The devastation occasioned by the powerful hurricane of that year, the deadliest of its kind anywhere in the United States in modern times, led to the massive reconstruction of the whole city. Recovering from the 1900 storm involved building a seawall and raising the island’s elevation significantly above sea level. In effect, the plan involved changing the entire natural environment of the city. The people of New Orleans must have often wondered why the same thing was never contemplated for their city. They have the same problem as Galveston, living on territory that in places is barely above sea level.
The challenge of raising an entire city began with a decision to raise its elevation by seventeen feet and surround the whole uplifted area with a ten-foot seawall. On the ocean side of this wall the land would slope down to the water on a slope of one foot for every 1,500 feet. To get the required quantities of sand, sixteen million cubic yards, enough to fill more than a million dump trucks, Galveston’s ship channel was dredged and the sand was piped into the city in a slurry form. Quarter-mile sections of the city were marked off and protective walls erected around them. The theory was that, as the water drained away, the sand would remain as a hard surface.
Before any work could be initiated, every building had to be raised and all service lines, sewer, water, and gas lines, had also to be raised. Even some gravestones had to be raised. The wall went up in stages year by year and the 1915 hurricane, with the same strength as the hurricane of 1900, was the first real test of the wall and the elevated interior. After leaving Galveston, the weakening 1915 storm took a turn to the northeast and passed Houston as a category 1 hurricane before dropping to tropical storm status later that day. In Galveston a series of fires broke out after the storm’s passage and relief aid was slow because the causeway that connected Galveston to mainland Texas had been badly damaged by the hurricane.