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Hurricanes were once unnamed and data about them were lumped together under "Storms," tucked away in dank, dusty, dimly lit library stacks. Nevertheless, one tempest stands out as the nation`s deadliest.More financially costly and life-disruptive storms have occurred, but the hurricane that swept through Galveston, Texas, like Sherman through Atlanta, killed between 6,000 and 8,000 people, making it the deadliest "tropical cyclone" in United States history.Galveston, Texas, 1900Galveston Island lies off the southeastern Texas coast, situated parallel to the mainland, creating a buffer between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay. With Houston located on the 600 square-mile bay`s western flank, Galveston, the "Gateway to the Bay," became a major player in the late-1800s shipping trade. One thousand ships docked in Galveston at various times throughout the year.Wealthy visitors traveled to Galveston for a relaxing and therapeutic dip in the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and by all accounts, its populace was second in the nation in per capita wealth. Life was good.Galveston had weathered a large storm 25 years earlier. There had been talk of building a seawall after that storm, but the naysayers won out.September 8, 1900With only rudimentary equipment available to the local National Weather Service meteorologist, Isaac Cline, forecasting was a matter of watching the horizon and the barometer to predict the whim of the elements. No early warning systems were in place at the time, although the NWS had received reports that a "tropical storm" had moved across Cuba four days before and was buffeting the Mississippi and Louisiana coastlines as late as September 7.When his day began at 5 a.m., Cline noticed rising gulf water washing over the island`s lower elevations. He also advised the residents within the first three blocks of the shore to move to higher ground.His warnings were largely ignored. By midafternoon, the telegraph lines went down, which closed communication to the outside world.Using today`s methods to determine storm strength by such calculable evidence as storm surge — 15 and a half feet in Galveston that night — meteorologists have concluded that winds reached between 130 and 140 miles per hour, a Category 4 hurricane (5 is strongest).In pitch darkness, people fought for their lives. Twenty percent of the population were killed.The aftermathThe destruction of Galveston`s bridges and railways, as well as its telegragh lines, had isolated the community from the world. The vessel headed to Houston to report that Galveston was in shambles and that rescue assistance was desperately needed.Rescuers from Houston and other cities around the bay were confronted with an overwhelming task. The pyres were said to have burned for weeks.One staggering fact remains: More people were killed in that storm than the more than 300 hurricanes that have hammered the United States since.Galveston todayResiliency and resolve characterize the survivors of that terrible storm of 1900. Patrick`s Church.Today, the refurbished Victorian-style homes are drawing cards for tourists, as are new hotels that have been built along that seawall. The shipping business returned for a time, but the dredging of the Houston Ship Canal in 1909 and 1914 bypassed Galveston, thereby ending that colorful era.The city today accommodates at least 60,000 people (2000 census) and enjoys a lively tourist trade along the popular five-block strip paralleling Galveston Bay, called "The Strand."
See Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.
Galveston Hurricane of 1900
The town of Galveston, Texas, destroyed by the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
Library of Congress image.
Established in the 1960s and 1970s, all of the National Park System units on the coast of Texas are young. Indeed the seascapes themselves are geologically youthful (i.e., covered by Pleistocene and Holocene landforms). Although predating the establishment of national parks in Texas, the hurricane that made landfall at Galveston, Texas, in 1900, was in the vicinity of what is now Padre Island National Seashore (authorized in 1962). Although the “Great Galveston Hurricane” also occurred before the establishment of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, this estimated category 4 storm is still considered the United States’ deadliest natural disaster. The storm’s sustained wind velocity, which was registered before the anemometer blew away, was 84 miles per hour (135 kph), but gusts of 100 miles per hour (161 kph) had been recorded. Later, meteorologists estimated that wind speeds probably reached 140 miles per hour (225 kph) (City of Galveston 1900 Storm Committee 2010). The storm surge, estimated at 15.7 feet (4.8 m), swept ashore in advance of the hurricane’s vortex and caused a sudden rise in water depth, inundating most of Galveston Island and the City of Galveston. At the time, the highest elevation on Galveston Island was 8.7 feet (2.7 m) (City of Galveston 1900 Storm Committee 2010).
The hurricane occurred before the implementation of assigning official names to tropical storms, and thus it is commonly referred to by a variety of descriptive names: “Galveston Hurricane of 1900,” the “Great Galveston Hurricane,” and, especially in older documents, the “Galveston Flood.” However, for Galveston locals, even today, reference to “the storm” always means the hurricane that tore across Galveston on 8 September 1900 and left the city in ruins (Lutz 2010).
Between 6,000 and 8,000 people in the city died as a result of the storm. Estimated casualties for the entire island range from 10,000 to 12,000. For comparison, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the deadliest storm of recent times, claimed the lives of approximately 1,500 people (Blake et al. 2007). Property damage caused by the 1900 hurricane is difficult to estimate by current standards, but contemporary figures range from $20 million to $30 million 2,636 houses were destroyed, and 300 feet (91 m) of shoreline eroded. The 16 ships anchored in the harbor at the time of the storm also suffered extensive damage (Weems 2009).
This hurricane had been first observed on 30 August in the vicinity of 15°N latitude and 63°W longitude, about 125 miles (201 km) northwest of Martinique, proceeding westward. Galvestonians had been aware of the storm since 4 September when it was reported moving northward over Cuba. From the first, however, details had been sketchy because of poor communications. In 1900, ships at sea had no way of telegraphing weather observations ashore. Furthermore, Galvestonians had become used to occasional “overflows” when high water swept beachfronts. Therefore, comparatively few people had evacuated the city before bridges from Galveston Island to the mainland collapsed (Weems 2009). Many people along the beach waited until too late to seek shelter in large buildings downtown, away from the Gulf of Mexico. Houses near the beach began falling first. The storm lifted debris from one row of buildings and hurled it against the next row until eventually two-thirds of the city, then the fourth largest in Texas, had been destroyed. People trying to make their way through wind and water to refuge were struck by hurtling bricks and lumber and sometimes decapitated by flying slate from roofs (Weems 2009). The great storm that wrought so much destruction on Galveston Island also left a long track: from Texas it traveled into Oklahoma and Kansas, turned northeastward and crossed over the Great Lakes and into Canada, and on 12 September passed north of Halifax and disappeared into the North Atlantic (Weems 2009).
Many observers predicted that Galveston would never recover and urged that the island be abandoned. However, out of the chaos, the citizens of Galveston rebuild the city, making it less vulnerable to future storms and flooding they also reformed the city in a thoughtful, intentional way (Bixel and Turner 2000). In addition, the citizens reinvented city government, developing the commission style of government now used by many municipalities, and gave women a larger role in public life (Bixel and Turner 2000). Furthermore, the storm prompted the construction of a 6-mile- (10-km-) long seawall, which has since been extended. Inside the city, sand pumped from the Gulf of Mexico elevated the grade as much as 17 feet (5.2 m). This work required the advanced raising of 2,146 buildings and many streetcar tracks, fireplugs, and water pipes, as well as the salvage of trees, shrubs, and flowers (Weems 2009).
Galveston hurricane of 1900
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Galveston hurricane of 1900, also called Great Galveston hurricane, hurricane (tropical cyclone) of September 1900, one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, claiming more than 8,000 lives. As the storm hit the island city of Galveston, Texas, it was a category 4 hurricane, the second strongest designation on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.
The storm was first detected on August 27 in the tropical Atlantic. The system landed on Cuba as a tropical storm on September 3 and moved on in a west-northwest direction. In the Gulf of Mexico the storm rapidly intensified. Citizens along the Gulf Coast were warned that the hurricane was approaching however, many ignored the warnings. On September 8 the storm reached Galveston, which at the time had a population of approximately 40,000 and benefited economically and culturally from its status as the largest port city in Texas. The storm tides (storm surges) of 8–15 feet (2.5–4.5 metres) and winds at more than 130 miles (210 km) per hour were too much for the low-lying city. Homes and businesses were easily demolished by the water and wind. Some 8,000 lives were lost, according to official estimates, but as many as 12,000 people may have died as a result of the storm. From Galveston the storm moved on to the Great Lakes and New England, which experienced strong wind gusts and heavy rainfall.
After the hurricane, Galveston raised the elevation of many new buildings by more than 10 feet (3 metres). The city also built an extensive seawall to act as a buffer against future storms. Despite the reconstruction, the city’s status as the premier shipping port was lost to Houston a few years after the disaster.
Galveston Hurricane - History
W hen they awoke on the morning of September 8, 1900, the 38,000 residents of Galveston, Texas were unaware that this day would be their city's last. They had no idea that before the day was done, 8,000 of their fellow citizens would perish with the city. The culprit was a hurricane. The storm swept in off the Gulf of Mexico packing winds up to 135 mph - a category 4 storm in modern terminology. The storm propelled a fifteen-foot surge of water before it easily swamping the 8.7-foot-high island that Galveston called home. Together, the wind and the water destroyed everything in their path and created the worst natural disaster in America's history.
|After the Storm|
By mid-morning rain clouds took over the sky and the wind began to pick up. By mid-afternoon the hurricane hit with an intensity that only increased as darkness descended. The storm made its exit during the early morning hours of the next day the total devastation it left in its wake revealed only with the rising sun. The bodies of the storm's victims littered a landscape strewn with debris in which few buildings remained standing.
The city immediately began the task of clearing up the wreckage and rebuilding. To bolster its defenses, the city actually raised its buildings by as much as 17 feet by pumping sand beneath their foundations. A thick, sturdy seawall was then built along the island's ocean front. But Galveston was never the same once the busiest port in Texas, with the promise of becoming the "New York of the South," the storm convinced shippers to move north to Houston's safer harbor.
". all at once the house went from its foundation and the water came in waist-deep:"
Milton Elford was a young man living in Galveston with his mother, father and a young nephew, Dwight. Milton was the only one of his family to survive the storm. He described his experience in a letter to his brothers in North Dakota. We join his story as the rising water and intensity of the storm persuade the family to leave their home for a sturdier brick house across the street:
We had arranged that if the house showed signs of breaking up, I would take the lead and Pa would come next, with Dwight and Ma next. In this way I could make a safe place to walk, as we would have to depend on floating debris for rafts.
There were about fifteen or sixteen in the house besides ourselves. They were confident the house would stand anything if not for that we would probably have left on rafts before the house went down. We all gathered in one room all at once the house went from its foundation and the water came in waist-deep, and we all made a break for the door, but could not get it open. We then smashed out the window and I led the way.
I had only got part way out when the house fell on us. I was hit on the head with something and it knocked me out and into the water head first. I do not know how long I was down, as I must have been stunned. I came up and got hold of some wreckage on the other side of the house. I could see one man on some wreckage to my left and another on my right. I went back to the door that we could not open. It was broke in, and I could go part way in, as one side of the ceiling was not within four or five feet, I think, of water. There was not a thing in sight.
I went back and got on the other side but no one ever came up that I could see. We must all have gone down the same time, but I cannot tell what they did not come up.
|Taking bodies to be burned|
Just then, the part I was on started down the street, and I stuck my head and shoulders in an old tool chest that was lying in the debris that I was on. I could hardly hold this down on its side from being blown away, but that is what saved my life again.
When the water went down about 3 a.m., I was about five bocks from where I started. My head was bruised and legs and hands cut a little, which I did not find until Monday and then I could hardly get my hat on.
. As soon as it was light enough, I went back to the location of the house, and not a sign of it could be found and not a sign any house within two blocks, where before there was scarcely a vacant lot.
I then went to the city hall to see the chief of police, to get some help to recover the corpses, thinking, I guess, that I was the only one in that fix.
The fireman and others started before noon to bring in corpses they brought them in in wagon loads of about a dozen at a time, laid them down in rows to be identified, and he next day they were badly decomposed, and were loaded on boats and taken to sea only to wash back on the beach. They then started to bury them wherever they were found but yesterday (Wednesday) the corpses were ordered burned. Men started removing the debris and burning it, and when they came upon a corpse it is just thrown on the pile."
Milton Elford's account appears in: Halstead, Murat, Galveston: the Horrors of a Stricken City (1900) Bixell, Patricia, Galveston and the 1900 Storm (2000) Larson, Erick, Isaac's Storm (1999).
Prior to the storm, the wealthy city of Galveston had been one of the nation’s busiest ports. After the storm, it was saddled with about $20 million in damages, which would amount to more than $700 million in today’s dollars. Donations poured in from New York’s millionaires in the wake of the storm, as well as from concerned citizens as far as Germany and South Africa. Clara Barton, the 78-year-old founder of the Red Cross, arrived two weeks later to restart the orphanage and coordinate the distribution of donated goods, especially loans to rebuild homes. (Some efforts to restore public order were more haphazard TIME reported in 1938 that one of the biggest leaders in preserving public order during the recovery was a rabbi who patrolled the area “with a shotgun over his shoulder and a bottle of whiskey in his pocket.”)
In additions to efforts to lift spirits and bodies from the rubble, this city on a sandbar also had to be literally lifted to protect the downtown area from future storms. Engineers built a roughly 17-foot-tall, three-mile-long concave seawall designed to send waves back where they came from (that’s now about 10 miles long). About 500 buildings were raised by as much as 18 inches in an effort to match the height of the seawall, according to TODAY’s Al Roker, who also wrote a history of the hurricane, Storm of the Century.
The recovery would take 12 years, but proved it was “worth the investment” during a 1915 hurricane when only eight died, according to Elizabeth Hayes Turner, co-author with Patricia Bellis Bixel of Galveston and the 1900 Storm. Experts say, however, that the Galveston that emerged from the rubble didn’t have the same status as a shipping center as it did during its heyday. As TIME reported shortly after Hurricane Ike, “Partly because of the storm and partly because oil was discovered in Houston soon afterwards, Galveston never really recovered. Texas’ economic momentum shifted, and Galveston became a beach town.”
Another compounding issue was the fact that the U.S. was also still figuring out its approach to predicting devastating storms at the turn of the 20th century.
The city’s weather bureau, helmed by Cline, was fairly new in Galveston, having only been started in 1889. Cline would become notorious for having argued that the city was impervious to such storms, but there was also a critical misunderstanding of the storm’s trajectory. As NOAA explained in a history of the event, “Since wireless ship-to-shore communications were not yet available, there was no way to know just when and where the hurricane would strike.”
Moreover, the unique political climate of 1900 and bias against Cuban forecasts also prevented meteorologists from properly warning the public. Despite the fact that the Cubans had pioneered the art and science of hurricane prediction, the U.S. government, which had been controlling the island since 1898, also sought to control weather forecasting. “To the Americans, Cuban forecasts seemed hysterical…the superstitious lore of a backward people,” Roker wrote in 2015 for American History magazine. To make forecasts sound less panicked, the bureau’s director Willis Moore even went so far as to ban the words &ldquotornado,” &ldquocyclone,” and &ldquohurricane,” and “banned direct communication between the U.S. Weather Bureau&rsquos office in Havana and the office in New Orleans,” requiring Havana to report directly to Washington &mdash thus blocking an important warning from top Cuban meteorologist Father Lorenzo Gangoite, who believed a hurricane was heading towards the Texas Gulf Coast.
Even now, despite technological advancements that have enhanced forecasting capabilities more than a century later, meteorologists are still never totally sure what hurricanes will do once they make landfall. Still, the necessity of adequately warning citizens is generally recognized for example, new mandatory evacuation orders were issued Monday afternoon for the hardest hit places around Houston, such as Dickinson.
With Texas bracing for more from Harvey, perhaps it can be a comfort to know that the state has rebuilt before, with the help of caring citizens, creative engineers and technological improvements. Even if things were never exactly the same for Galveston, the city persisted. That dedication is something that Texas will once again be able to put to good use in the recovery yet to come.
As FEMA chief Long explained, &ldquoThe recovery to this event is going to last many years to be able to help Texas and the people impacted by this event achieve a new normal.&rdquo
Blown Away: Galveston Hurricane, 1900
LOCATED ON A NARROW island that separates Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston, Texas, in 1900 was a prosperous port of 37,000. Residents had bragging rights to a number of Texas firsts: the first medical college in the state, the first electric lights and streetcars and the first public library all belonged to their city. Its illustrious past seemed to bode well for its future—until the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history changed things forever.
On Wednesday, September 5, 1900, the Galveston Daily News ran a tiny, 27-word squib in its weather section: A tropical disturbance was moving over western Cuba and heading for the south Florida coast. The notice was datelined “Washington, D.C.,” September 4. It was simply signed “Moore.” That was Willis Moore, director of the United States Weather Bureau.
Three days later, with no official warning, a Category 4 hurricane leveled Galveston and claimed at least 10,000 lives. The unnamed storm is still the deadliest in American history.
Accurate long-range tracking of hurricanes was hard to come by in 1900. But Moore’s notice was so wrong—about the nature of the storm and its direction—that it seems to suggest both meteorology and international communications remained in a primitive state. Nobody, one might assume, knew anything in advance about the hurricane’s strength or track.
But that’s far from the truth. As early as Monday, September 3, the storm was being observed by meteorologists in Cuba. They were perhaps the best in the world at assessing and predicting the tracks of hurricanes, and they knew the storm had grown into an unmistakably violent one headed for the Texas Gulf Coast. Why didn’t the U.S. Weather Bureau know that? The grim answer to that question had to do with a highly problematic relationship between the United States and Cuba following the Spanish-American War.
Cuban revolutionaries, assisted by the United States, had won independence from Spain in 1898. Yet in September 1900, the U.S. government still administered the island, and within the U.S. Weather Bureau, which had stations in the Caribbean, resentment and disdain for Cuban forecasting had become entrenched.
Meteorology, like much other science in Cuba, was the province of Jesuit priests. The Belen Observatory, founded by Father Benito Viñes in Havana in 1858, was perhaps the most advanced in the world. An extension of a Jesuit preparatory school, the observatory benefited from the long Jesuitical tradition of inquiry, experimentation, publishing and teaching.
There couldn’t have been a better place to learn how to forecast bad weather than Havana. Its tropical vegetation, wrought-iron balconies and painted stucco houses were routinely subjected to torrential downpours and violent wind. One year, a hurricane removed the observatory’s entire zinc roof.
Father Viñes hoped not only to advance meteoro-logical science but also to aid humankind. He soon made the small Havana observatory the hub of a forecasting network for the entire Caribbean Sea. He filled a storm notebook with descriptions of clouds, cross-referenced to instrument readings. He jotted down snippets of conversations with ship captains. He brought in telegraph reports and newspaper clippings.
From these data, Viñes created a system for understanding storm formation and making predictions. He published it all in newspapers so that ordinary people could understand and respond. But his real genius lay in interpreting the meaning of cloud formations and how they related to hurricanes: cirrostratus clouds and their plumiform type in particular.
Cirrostratus are high, gauzy clouds composed of ice crystals. They give a kind of cover through which a haloed moon may be seen or from which hazy sunshine emanates. Viñes realized that hurricanes tend to produce these cirrostratus clouds—but only on the outer edges of a system. He began to suspect that those clouds are created by winds flowing off a hurricane system miles high. So if you were to see cirrostratus clouds in the tropics, Father Viñes deduced, you might really be seeing the farthest outer edge of a hurricane, which you wouldn’t otherwise have any idea was out there. Because hurricanes are so massive—hundreds of miles across—the far outer edge may lie many days’ travel away from the storm’s deadly eye.
You know a hurricane is coming. And you still have time to act.
But not all forms of cirrostratus cloud signal the approach of a distant hurricane. The clouds must come in plumiform shape that is, they appear to spread across the sky, fanning upward in plumes that seem to be reaching out from a central point. The bottoms of these elongations, Viñes further deduced, point directly at the eye of the hurricane that produces them.
So now you also know the direction from which the hurricane is coming.
Using those theories, Father Viñes built a model by which meteorologists could accurately ascertain that a hurricane had formed, calculate roughly how far away it was, gauge how fast it was moving and even closely track its path. Soon he had a telegraphic network of storm observers working the entire Caribbean, integrating reports from every kind of colonial and independent government: Spanish, British, French, Danish, Dutch, Dominican, Venezuelan and American. Everything about Caribbean weather went through Father Viñes in Havana and traveled through telegraph weather networks in which the United States also participated.
AT THE U.S. WEATHER BUREAU in Washington, D.C., director Willis Moore made squelching Cuban forecasting one of the most important reforms he brought to the office. The bureau had been established as part of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps in 1870 when Moore took it over in 1895, he was determined to make it a model of efficiency. Perhaps most important, he tightened the rules concerning local forecasting—especially regarding storm warnings. Moore believed local weathermen had been over-warning the public. There was a tendency to sow panic. It created an unhappy impression that the bureau was not fully in control. From now on, all storm warnings would come from Moore at his hub in Washington. The local weathermen would cable regular temperature, atmosphere and wind condition reports to the central office, where clerks aggregated the morning data into a national weather map, which was then telegraphed back to each station. It was for Washington, not for local weathermen, to determine what was going on locally.
And for fear of panicking local populations, Moore banned certain words from all official weather reports: “Tornado.” And “cyclone.” And “hurricane.”
Moore also assigned Colonel Henry Harrison Chase Dunwoody, an officer in the old Signal Corps, to the bureau’s Caribbean weather station. Colonel Dunwoody had made his name by scoffing at the value of meteorological science in making predictions, especially when it came to hurricanes. The source, progress and ultimate course of a hurricane might as well be, according to Dunwoody, “a matter of divination.” To the Americans, Cuban forecasts seemed hysterical, despite their extraordinary history of accuracy. The superstitious lore of a backward people, the bureau believed, lacked the Yankee grit and know-how that was making America a great leader on the world stage.
So Moore and Dunwoody appointed one of their own to assert a big, strong, guiding American presence in Cuban forecasting: William B. Stockman, a veteran of the bureau going back to the Signal Corps days. Stockman set up shop in Havana and took charge of all the U.S. weather stations in the region. In one of his early reports, Stockman simply eradicated the entire history of the Cuban weather networks. He told Moore that Cubans had never heard of forecasting. The locals were “very very conservative,” Stockman reported, “and forecasting the approach of storms…was a most radical change.” It was especially important, Stockman advised, that the bureau not be guilty of causing “unnecessary alarm among the natives.”
And there was yet another problem with the Cuban weathermen. The Havana observatory, Stockman claimed, had been secretly piggybacking on U.S. reports. Agents in the bureau’s New Orleans station nabbed copies of the daily weather maps coming out of Washington, then sent the U.S. maps by undersea telegraph to Havana. Such shifty shenanigans allowed the Cubans, as Dunwoody put it, “to compete with this service.”
In other words, the Cubans never got things right, but when they did, it was because they stole U.S. data. Having pinched good reports, the Cuban forecasters whipped a silly, uneducated, overemotional population into frenzy with overblown warnings of monster storms.
IN LATE AUGUST 1900, Moore decided to deal once and for all with the Cuban annoyances. Hurricane season was well underway. This was the perfect time, Moore calculated, to shut down all communication between Cuban weathermen and the people of the United States. It would take some string pulling. Fortunately for Moore, the U.S. War Department controlled all of Cuba’s government-owned telegraph lines. Those were the same lines over which Father Viñes had established his fabled hurricane-warning system for the entire region. The War Department responded quickly to the Weather Bureau’s request to formally ban from those lines all messages referring to weather.
But Moore went further and banned direct communication between the U.S. Weather Bureau’s office in Havana and the office in New Orleans. Havana would report directly to Washington, and Washington would decide what information to give New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast.
Moore even reached out to Western Union, the commercial telegraph company. He couldn’t demand that Western Union censor private weather-related messages, but he could ask the company to manage what a later age would call bandwidth. He requested first priority for U.S. Weather Bureau transmissions. Next would come any non-weather-related messages. Cuban weather mes-sages were to get the lowest priority. Western Union showed a patriotic willingness to cooperate. Any private telegrams from Cuba to the United States regarding weather would be slowed, bumped or, Moore hoped, discarded. His blackout of Cuba was almost total.
On Monday, September 3, Father Lorenzo Gangoite, who had succeeded Father Viñes in Havana, observed a new storm. He saw that it was changing fast, twirling on its own axis as it zoomed across the spinning Earth—yet it hadn’t formed that perfect, and perfectly deadly, spiral that we associate with a hurricane. There wasn’t yet an eye of low pressure at the system’s center. Its winds, while hard and rough, still did not reach above 60 mph.
The storm nevertheless already had the power to knock down buildings and wash away train tracks on Cuba and other islands. Late Wednesday night, September 5, Father Gangoite observed a big halo around the moon. The halo did not dissipate. At dawn, the sky turned red—deep red—and “cirrus clouds,” Gangoite said later, “were moving from the west by north and northwest by north, with a focus on those same points.” To him that meant the storm had transformed drastically: It had gained intensity it had gained structure and prevailing winds were pushing it northwest. Following Father Viñes’ model, Father Gangoite thought he could tell exactly where the storm was going: the Texas Gulf Coast.
There was nothing Father Gangoite could do. Willis Moore had blocked the forecast. But he couldn’t stop the hurricane.
AT 6 A.M. THURSDAY, September 6, the people of Galveston, Texas, were looking forward to the weekend and hoping for relief from the heat. Everything certainly looked fine—if still and humid—when Isaac Cline, the Weather Bureau’s chief Galveston observer, took the morning readings from the top of the five-story Levy Building downtown. Barometric pressure within the normal range. Light winds. Temperature already 80 degrees—hot, but slightly cooler than it had been. The huge sky over the Levy Building and out to the calm Gulf was as clear and blue as could be.
At 8 a.m. the bureau confirmed the prediction it had telegraphed to Galveston the day before regarding a disturbance coming out of Cuba. “Not a hurricane,” Moore called it. (Evidently, you could use the word as long as you put “not” in front of it.) The course of this non-hurricane would not affect Galveston. The storm would instead go into a classic “recurve.” According to the bureau, storms exiting the Caribbean on a northerly trajectory could not continue on a northwestern track. A storm thundering out of Cuba over the Florida Straits must turn toward Florida, where it would sweep across the peninsula. Broken coastline on the Florida side of the Gulf would prevent the storm from hitting any landmass head-on, and it would lose what little power it had. The system, said the bureau, was “attended only by heavy rains and winds of moderate force” that could damage moored ships and shoreline property along the Florida coast. The storm would then move northeast, weakening as it went, and probably would “be felt as far northward as Norfolk by Thursday night and is likely to extend over the middle Atlantic and South New England states by Friday.” After that, the storm was expected to exit into the Atlantic somewhere in or above New England.
Weather stations at New Orleans and points east were authorized to hang the red-and-black storm-warning flags, letting ship captains know of moderately disturbed seas. But any residual action in the Gulf would quickly dissipate. And no warnings were in order west of New Orleans. Some fishermen on the New Jersey shore, having received the national report, cabled Moore for advice. Never one to hesitate, Moore cabled right back. “Not safe to leave nets in after tonight,” he warned them. A rough storm was headed their way, Moore was certain.
Moore was correct in believing that many hurricanes do “recurve.” But there also happened to be, at that moment in September 1900, a big zone of high pressure bordering the Florida Keys—that string of narrow islands curving from the tip of the state’s long peninsula—well to the east of the storm. This high-pressure zone caused an exception to the rule of hurricane recurve that Willis Moore thought was immutable. A recurve would have drawn the hurricane east toward Florida, but high pressure at the Keys pushed it away. Winds blowing from east to west off the Keys added to the pushback.
Drawing new energy constantly from the hot sea below, pulling those waves high upward, throwing wind in every direction as it circled, unleashing monstrous thunderclaps and streaks of jagged lightning and pouring hard rain, this complex of storms was also drawn west-northwest by low pressure there. Spinning counterclockwise, it had become a fully organized system of destruction turning around a large, roughly circular eye, some 30 miles in diameter.
At 1:59 p.m. Cline received a telegraphed report from Washington. The storm that had drenched Cuba was now, as expected, centered over southern Florida. That evening, in Galveston, Cline took the last readings for the day. It was hotter now—just over 90 degrees. The wind was out of the north. The barometer was down—but just barely. There were scattered clouds. Cline reported all of that to Washington and went home to bed.
Friday morning, September 7, everything stopped making sense. The Weather Bureau abruptly reversed its forecast, and Cline was ordered to raise the storm-warning flag. What Cline didn’t know was this: The weathermen in Washington had been getting surprising reports from local stations on the East Coast. The stormy weather predicted there had entirely failed to arrive. The winds that battered Key West did not start blowing in central Florida after all. Savannah and Charleston were not being drenched. Those fishermen in Long Branch, N.J., worrying about their nets had nothing to fear. There was only one conclusion. The men in Washington finally drew it. The storm that had left Cuba on Wednesday must still be in the Gulf of Mexico.
In Galveston Friday afternoon, a heavy swell formed southeast of the long Gulf beach. And it arrived with an ominous roar. The clouds, meanwhile, were coming from the northeast. Obviously, a severe storm was on the way. Thanks to the storm-warning flag, as well as to the crashing surf on the beach, the Weather Bureau office on the third floor of the Levy Building had become a scene of constantly ringing phones and people crowding in with questions. Ship captains, the harbormaster, businessmen and concerned citizens, official and civilian alike, wanted answers. While officials in Washington had recognized they were wrong about the storm’s track, on one point Moore remained insistent: This couldn’t be a hurricane.
All day Isaac Cline and his brother, Joseph, tried to fend off confusion and worry. They took turns dealing with the phones and the crowds and collecting weather data on the roof. The clouds had thickened. The day that had started clear was now cloudy. From out in the Gulf, the swells kept coming. By Friday night, rain had started falling steadily and Joseph Cline had a sense of impending disaster. He’d received reports from New Orleans, the weather station nearest to the center of the storm. It was southwest of the city and moving west.
Joseph knew that meant it was heading straight for Galveston.
About midnight, Joseph quickly created a new weather map based on the reports he was receiving by cable. He took the map to the post office to await the first train over the railroad bridge from Galveston Island to the Texas mainland. Then he went home to the house he shared with Isaac about three blocks from the beach and tried to sleep. Visions of hurricanes kept invading his dreams.
At 4 a.m. Saturday, September 8, he awoke with a start. He had a sudden, clear impression that Gulf water had flowed all the way into the yard. Joseph got up. From a south window, he peered down.
It wasn’t a dream. The yard really was under water. The Gulf was in town.
EPILOGUE: Defying the ban on local storm warnings, Isaac Cline sprang into action, urging beach residents and business owners to head for higher ground. But the highest point in Galveston was 8.7 feet above sea level, and the island was about to be engulfed by a 15-foot storm surge. At 3:30 Saturday afternoon, the Clines sent a cable to Moore in Washington. “Gulf rising rapidly,” it read. “Half the city now under water.”
Fifty people sought refuge in Cline’s stout brick house, which was knocked off its foundation Saturday night. All but 18, Cline wrote later, “were hurled into eternity,” among them his wife, Clara, pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. (The Clines’ three other daughters survived.) Across Galveston, the devastation was unimaginable: an estimated 6,000 dead in the city and another 4,000 to 6,000 on Galveston Island and the adjacent mainland. Property damage at the time was estimated to be $30 million in today’s dollars, that’s more than $700 million.
Willis Moore suffered no professional consequences for his decisions. On September 28, 1900, he commended the Clines and their assistant, John Blagden, for “heroic devotion to duty. . . .Through [your] efficient service…in the dissemination of warnings, thousands of people were enabled to move…and were thus saved.” The Weather Bureau slowly adopted hurricane-forecasting techniques in the coming years (though tornado warnings were officially banned until 1938). Moore was fired from the Weather Bureau in 1913 after charges of improper conduct in his campaign to secure a Cabinet post were referred to the Justice Department.
From the forthcoming book The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Disaster, the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900, by Al Roker. © 2015 by Al Roker. To be published August 11, 2015, by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
'Your Heart Skips A Beat' Ahead Of Storms Like Harvey, Galveston Mayor Says
'Your Heart Skips A Beat' Ahead Of Storms Like Harvey, Galveston Mayor Says
"The water was comin' so fast. The wagon gettin' so it was floatin'. The poor mules swimmin' that was pullin'. And the men laid flat on their stomach, holdin' the little children."
Survivors wrote of wind that sounded "like a thousand little devils shrieking and whistling," of 6-foot waves coming down Broadway Avenue, of a grand piano riding the crest of one, of slate shingles turned into whirling saw blades, and of streetcar tracks becoming waterborne battering rams that tore apart houses.
"The animals tried to swim to safety and the frightened squawking chickens were roosting everywhere they could get above the water," Pauls remembered. "People from homes already demolished were beginning to drift into our house, which still stood starkly against the increasing fury of the wind and water."
A large part of the city of Galveston was reduced to rubble. AP hide caption
A large part of the city of Galveston was reduced to rubble.
At the height of the storm, John W. Harris remembered two dozen terrified people climbing in through the windows of their home on Tremont Street. His mother prepared for rising floodwaters by lashing her children together.
"Mother had a trunk strap around each one of us to hold onto us as long as she could," he recalled.
Rosenberg School, built of brick, became a refuge for Annie McCullough's family and many others.
Pier 21 Theater
Pier 21 Theater is located at 21st Street and Harborside Drive on the 2nd floor, above Willie G’s. The entrance is located on the south-east corner of building. Please arrive at least 15 minutes before showtime. No late seating is allowed. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for students, ages 6 to 18, and free for children under 6.
THE GREAT STORM
Shown on the hour from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Great Storm, the story of the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston Island on Sept. 8, has been digitally restored from its 35MM slide presentation to an advanced wide-screen, high definition format. This documentary shares the personal stories of survivors and the recovery of Galveston following the deadliest natural disaster in United States history. This new HD version shows incredible detail and clarity in the black and white photos taken after the disaster and used in the documentary.
The new digitally projected show coupled with a new state-of-the-art sound system brings visitors even closer to the story. “Using today’s imaging technology we were able to remove large scratches, tears and focus issues in the photography which wasn’t possible 18 years ago,” says Producer Richard Hoggatt of Houston’s Stage Directions Production Company. “The result with digital projection is an incredible clarity in these old images.”
THE PIRATE ISLAND OF JEAN LAFFITE
Shown on the half-hour from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Pirate or patriot? Smuggler or businessman? Merciless murderer and thief, or hero in time of war? These are the contradictions of the legendary Jean Laffite. His harsh actions have secured his place in infamy, but his motives remain a mystery to this day.
Whatever his reasons, the mere mention of Laffite in the early decades of the 1800s sent merchant ships throughout the Gulf of Mexico racing for safe harbor. During the last three years of his marauding campaign, Laffite made Galveston Island his base of operations. As for the treasure he is said to have buried there, none has been found . . . yet.
The Pirate Island of Jean Laffite, directed by C. Grant Mitchell, is an exciting chronicle of the adventures of the pirate who called Galveston home and seeks to explore the questions of his character.
Upper Texas Coast Tropical Cyclones in the 1940s
HURRICANE (Cat. 4 - October 4th landfall)
A hurricane which formed in the Pacific off the Mexican coast crossed into the Gulf and struck Freeport with 135 mph winds (90 mph at Houston), 11.0' storm surge, and central pressure of 28.88". Two persons died in Freeport. Other tides included 10.5 feet at Greens Bayou and 8.0 feet at Matagorda. Total damage was $6.7 million. This storm was at Category 4 status
* - Hurrtrak data indicated Category 4 status NHC/TPC documents has a peak at Category 2 status.
HURRICANE (Cat. 1 - August 24th landfall)
A hurricane made landfall near Galveston Bay with maximum winds of 80 mph, barometer of 29.30", and a 3.6' tide at Sabine Pass. At least one death was reported.
TROPICAL STORM (June 16th landfall)
A tropical storm passed inland near the TX-LA border.
HURRICANE (Cat. 4* - August 27th landfall)
This hurricane formed in the southwest Gulf on 8/24 and moved toward the Texas coast. During the night of the 25th, the hurricane made landfall near Matagorda with 130 mph winds, a 15' storm surge, and a barometer of 28.57". Three persons died as a result of the storm, including one boy in Corpus Christi who was electrocuted by a fallen power line. Twenty-five persons were injured.
* - Hurrtrak data indicated a Category 4 status NHC/TPC documents had peak at a Category 2.
Winds (mph): 135 at Collegeport 100 at Bay City.
Pressure (inches): 28.60 at Port O'Connor 28.75 at Collegeport.
Tides (feet): 9.6 at Matagorda 8.0 at Port O'Connor.
HURRICANE (Cat. 1* - July 27th landfall)
This hurricane moved inland over Bolivar Peninsula near Galveston Bay. Houston had a wind gust to 132 mph, Texas City recorded a gust of 104 mph, and Beaumont recorded 17.76" of rain. Nineteen persons died. Damage totaled $17 million. More information on this "surprise" hurricane can be found in this NOAA History story Major Southeast Texas Weather Events Page-->.
* - Hurrtrak data indicated a Category 1 status NHC/TPC documents had peak at a Category 2.
HURRICANE (Cat. 1 - August 21st landfall)
This hurricane hit near Galveston with maximum winds at landfall at 72 mph, barometer at 29.35", and a storm tide of 7' at High Island.
HURRICANE (Cat. 1* - August 30th landfall)
This hurricane formed near Grand Cayman Island on 8/26 and moved toward the Texas coast. On the morning of the 29th in Corpus Christi, 7,000 people on North Beach were evacuated. Heavy rains fell, and winds gusted during the day, blowing at 42 mph by 11:30 PM. At 2:30 AM on the 30th, the storm made landfall on Matagorda Bay with 110 mph winds, a 14.7' storm surge, and a central pressure of 28.10 inches. Storm winds and some property damage was occurred as far west as San Antonio. The hurricane killed eight persons.
* - This hurricane was a Category 3 well offshore, but weakened to a Category 1 by landfall.
Pressure (inches): 28.21 at Coast Guard in Port O'Connor 28.80 inches at Palacios.
Tides (feet): 13.8 at Port O'Connor.
TROPICAL STORM (September 15th landfall)
This tropical storm made landfall west of Sabine Pass near Beaumont. Peak winds were 40 mph, and the lowest pressure was 1003 mb.
HURRICANE (Cat. 1* - September 23rd landfall)
This hurricane made landfall near Freeport with an estimated 110 mph winds, tides of 10.6', and a barometer of 28.31 inches. Extremely high tides were reported along the entire coast from Matagorda to Galveston. Four lives were lost, and property damage was estimated at $6.5 million. This hurricane reached Category 3 status at its peak while well offshore.
* - This hurricane was a Category 3 well offshore, but weakened to a Category 1 by landfall.
Winds (mph): 83 at Texas City 75 at Houston.
Pressure (inches): 28.66 at Houston.
Tides (feet): 11 at Matagorda 9.9 at Sargent.
HURRICANE (Cat. 2 - August 7th landfall)
This system formed off the Georgia coast them moved southwest across FL and into the Gulf of Mexico. Five days later, the strengthened system made landfall as a hurricane near Beaumont with 91 mph winds, a pressure of 28.87 inches, and a surge of 21.1'. Maximum winds recorded at Galveston were 46 mph. The hurricane caused at least 1 death and 9 injuries. Total damage was $1.75 million.
TROPICAL STORM (September 23rd landfall)
This tropical storm moved toward the Lower TX coast then curved sharply to the northeast. The storm moved parallel to the upper coast and just offshore until making landfall in Western LA. Rainfall was widespread but not excessive along the entire TX coast.
More Than a Century Later, This Texas Hurricane Remains America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster
By the time meteorologist Isaac Cline warned his fellow citizens, it was too late.
On this day in 1900, a hurricane made landfall in the island city of Galveston, Texas. Galveston was a rich port city, but it was less than 10 feet above sea level, and it wasn’t prepared for a hurricane. In fact, Cline, who was the city’s connection to the national weather services, had publicly stated that a hurricane would never make landfall in Galveston as part of a campaign against building a seawall to protect the city. Sadly, according to the federal government, at leastو,000 people were killed in the natural disaster, which remains the deadliest in American history.
“Now rated a Category 4 tropical storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, the Great Galveston Hurricane occurred at a time when tropical storms weren’t named and the National Hurricane Center (NHC) did not yet exist,” writes Steve Melito for On This Day in Engineering History. But the United States Weather Services Bureau, which was established in the 1800s, maintained a local office where Cline worked.
The meteorologist, who also lived in Galveston with his wife and three daughters, was the city’s only frontline weather advisor. “Galvestonians had been aware of the storm since September 4, when it was reported moving northward over Cuba,” writes the Texas State Historical Association. “From the first, however, details had been sketchy because of poor communications.” The local residents had few incoming reports of the storm, as ships out at sea had no ability to communicate with the land and telegraph lines elsewhere were downed by the storm.
Because of the lack of communication, the historical association writes, the city’s 38,000 inhabitants were unaware the hurricane was heading for Galveston. Rain and wind were the only warnings. “Not even an encroaching tide disturbed them greatly,” the association writes. “Galvestonians had become used to occasional ‘overflows’ when high water swept beachfronts. Houses and stores were elevated as a safeguard.”
Cline, however, thought a hurricane was coming. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on the morning of September 8, “Cline said he harnessed his horse to a cart, drove to the beach, and warned everyone of the impending danger from the storm–advising them to get to higher ground immediately.”
But his warnings had little effect on either Galveston locals or the tourists who flocked to the island’s miles of beaches in the warm months, writes History.com. Given that the island was completely overwhelmed by the hurricane, likely the only safe answer would have been to evacuate everyone via the bridges that connected Galveston to the mainland. Some people did take this route, the historical association writes, but not enough.
“Houses near the beach began falling first,” the historical association writes. “The storm lifted debris from one row of buildings and hurled it against the next row until eventually two-thirds of the city, then the fourth largest in Texas, had been destroyed.” Cline and his brother Joseph Cline kept sending reports to the national weather offices until the telegraph lines went down, NOAA writes.
A massive wave, caused by the hurricane, buried the city under 15 feet of water, which receded, leaving ruins and a death toll of more than 8,000 people, according to NOAA. Among the dead was Cline’s wife, although his three daughters survived the storm. Images from Galveston’s public library show the destruction that came in the storm’s wake and the grisly task of retrieving and laying to rest thousands of bodies.
“Although Galveston was rebuilt, it never reestablished itself as the major port of call it once was,” NOAA writes. “The city was soon overshadowed by Houston, some miles inland and connected to the Gulf of Mexico by a canal.”
About Kat Eschner
Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.
How Galveston Survived The Deadliest Hurricane in American History
The citizens of Galveston, Texas, had achieved unprecedented economic prosperity. The city, built on a shallow, sandy island 2 miles (1.2 kilometers) offshore, had become the state’s leading center of trade, exporting some 1.7 million bales of cotton annually. At the turn of the century, the city stood in the doorway to an even more prosperous future.
This all changed September 8, 1900, when an unusually high tide and long, rolling sea swells gave way to a massive landfalling hurricane. During the night, the storm destroyed some 3,600 buildings and killed at least 6,000 residents out of a total population of about 38,000. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 10,000. The storm remains the most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history.
Even after a century of retelling, the tale of the great Galveston hurricane still chills us with the scale of its devastation and the sudden, anonymous loss of life. Today, 10 miles (16 km) of massive concrete seawall stands between the city of Galveston and the sea, reminding all behind it of the fantastically destructive potential of tropical storms.
Authorities at first collected corpses for burial at sea. But the bodies floated back and washed up on shore. (Courtesy of the ROSENBERG LIBRARY, Galveston, Texas)
A Wave of Profits
Galveston, presently home to some 50,000 people, sprawls across a barrier island. It is connected to the coast by a causeway at the island’s north shore, a bridge on the western side, and a ferry terminal on the east end. The island, 27 miles (43 km) long, varies in width from 1.5 to 3 miles (2.4 to 4.8 km). Salt marshes fringe its north shore. On the south coast, miles of hard-packed, caramel-colored sand afford an unrivaled recreational beachfront.
Established in 1838, the town had the best natural harbor on the Texas coast. This good fortune, and later improvements to the harbor, eventually allowed even the largest ocean-going freighters to add Galveston to their ports of call.
The city developed into an important center of export. And not just from Texas and surrounding states: By century’s end, Galveston was less than 2 days by steam locomotive from Chicago and its hyperactive commodities markets.
On the eve of the great storm, Galveston was one of the country’s major shipping ports. Cash from the sale of King Cotton poured in. Hotels rose. The newly wealthy built castle-like mansions in town. The saloons were packed, and the streets were bustling with activity.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Galveston became the most populous city in Texas, with 22,000 year-round inhabitants. In the summer season, even more people swarmed the beaches, bathhouses, and elegant hotels. Then came the storm.
Galveston had withstood at least 11 hurricanes before the 1900 storm. The historical record on these storms is either telegraphic in its lack of detail or virtually absent. But it’s clear the major hazard had been, and remains, high storm tides.
As a tropical storm approaches the coast, strong surface winds and low central pressure mound up water in front of the tempest. This storm surge adds to the daily high tide, creating abnormally high water and coastal flooding. Storm tides 3, 6, 9, or even 12 feet above normal are not unheard of during a major storm.
Storm tides destroy coastal development and threaten the lives of anyone caught unaware. But in a setting like Galveston — dense development on a low-lying island — the potential for devastation and loss of life is much worse. A large storm tide can wash over the entire island as the tempest makes landfall.
During the 1900 storm, a tsunami-like wall of water bulldozed everything in front of it. As the wall of debris gained mass, its destructive power also grew. The storm tide also flowed around to the bay side of the island and flooded the city from the north. There was no escape from the vise-like meeting of the waters.
The Galveston Hurricane bulldozed portions of the city up to 15 blocks from the beach. Some 3,600 structures were smashed into a chaotic mix of splintered wood, broken glass, smashed furniture and dead bodies. (Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas)
The only possible escape from such a storm would have been to get out of town in time to miss it. Unfortunately, weather forecasting in 1900 was primitive compared to today’s capabilities. But Galveston did have a resident weather expert: Isaac Monroe Cline.
Cline (1861–1955) was born in Tennessee. He was an excellent student, and considered becoming a preacher or a lawyer. Instead, in 1882 he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the predecessor to today’s National Weather Service.
In 1889, Cline moved from Abilene, Texas, to Galveston with his wife, Cora, and their three daughters. Cline went there to start a new weather station and run the Weather Service’s Texas branch. In 1891, Congress transformed the Weather Service into a new civilian agency, the U.S. Weather Bureau.
The young meteorologist had already begun to make a reputation for himself. He issued the first 24- and 36-hour temperature forecasts and freeze alerts to help farmers. He also fostered cooperation with weather forecasters in Mexico. But Cline did not have the tools or knowledge to anticipate the great storm.
By August 27, the storm had organized to form a tropical depression — a system of thunderstorms with a low-pressure center and internal winds — west of the Cape Verde Islands. The next day, a ship’s captain recorded steady winds of Beaufort Force 6 (25–31 mph [40–50 km/h]). The weather system continued to grow in intensity as it barreled across the warm Caribbean Sea.
The Weather Bureau knew of the storm’s existence as early as August 30. The Bureau also knew that the storm passed over Cuba September 4, heading north. On September 6, it churned northwest of Florida’s Key West.
Expecting the storm to recurve eastward, as most Atlantic tropical storms did, Weather Bureau forecasters in Washington issued warnings to the eastern Gulf Coast, Florida, and southern states on the Atlantic. Instead, the storm turned west into the warm waters of the Gulf.
The great Galveston Hurricane, first sighted as a tropical disturbance off Africa’s west coast by a ship captain, rolled across the Caribbean Islands and Cuba before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters expected it to turn north, but it headed west instead. The cyclone intensified into a major storm before making landfall near Galveston September 8, 1900. The storm, weakened but alive, churned across the entire continent, causing death and destruction even to sailors on the Great Lakes. It finally died offshore. (Credit: Extreme Weather/Theo Cobb)
On September 7, the day before landfall, Cline noticed an upturn in the size and frequency of swells reaching Galveston. The long, rolling waves were the leading edge of the storm surge.
Cline also noticed that the tide was rising. This made no sense, because the wind was blowing from the north, not from the south, which might have explained the higher tide. Nor had the barometer started to fall — another sign of a tropical storm.
Cline eventually decided a storm was coming from the sea. He ordered warning flags flown in town. According to his later memoir, Cline drove a horse and wagon along the beach at 5 a.m. the morning of the storm, to warn people to seek shelter on higher ground.
But little high ground existed in Galveston. The highest point stood only 8.7 feet (2.7m) above sea level. A storm tide estimated at 15 to 20 feet (4.6 to 6m) was coming, but most people remained in their homes. The Weather Bureau never even used the term “hurricane.” The lack of safe refuge and adequate warning doomed the city’s inhabitants.
Why didn’t Cline and the Weather Bureau see the disaster coming? Cline’s own bias probably played a role. In 1891, he published an article in a Galveston newspaper dismissing the “absurd delusion” that Galveston was at risk from hurricanes. He stated that, because of Earth’s rotation and large-scale wind patterns, tropical storms turn eastward before reaching the Gulf, except under very unusual circumstances. And even if a cyclone made it to the Texas coast, Cline argued, it would be relatively weak.
As for flooding, Cline believed storm tides would preferentially inundate the low-lying mainland coast, not Galveston. “It would be impossible,” he wrote, “for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.”
By 1859, when surveyors completed this map of Galveston Island’s east end and harbor area, the city was a major center of trade. Cotton exports fueled the city’s rapid growth. (Credit: NOAA)
Cline’s expectations proved tragically inaccurate. The storm enveloped Galveston the evening of September 8 with winds gusting as high as 140 mph (225 km/h). Cline and his brother Joseph, who also worked at the Weather Bureau, reported observations to Washington until the telegraph lines went down.
Like so many others, they returned home to wait out the tempest. Cline’s family and about 50 neighbors huddled in the house. During the storm, a railroad trestle broke free and struck the Cline home, tearing it apart. Isaac, his brother, and his daughters made it out of the wreckage of the house alive, but Cline’s wife drowned.
By 6 p.m. Saturday, the wind tore off the gauges at 100 mph. A dark, deadly night was coming. At about this time, Samuel O. Young, secretary of the city’s Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade, watched the mounting violence from his home. He had earlier observed the ocean start to encroach on the Strand, the city’s opulent main drag.
Now, through a west window in his home, Young saw the tide rise a full 4 feet in one pulse. Then he saw several large houses fall apart like toys and float away. Cline witnessed something similar: water rising from a depth of 8 inches to 4 feet on his first floor in the time it took for him to cross the room.
Texas historians have collected scores of equally harrowing personal accounts of the storm. A typical scenario of death saw people wading chest-deep in water and then climbing to the upper floors of buildings as the floodwater rose rapidly. Finally, the buildings collapsed, carrying many victims into the chaotic pile of splintered planks, broken glass, smashed furniture, and drowned bodies. And all this occurred in pitch darkness as the storm howled like a freight train. Venturing outdoors was certain death.
Charles Law, a traveling salesman who stayed the night in the Tremont Hotel, ventured outside Sunday morning after a night when he and many others waited helplessly for death. “I went out into the streets and the most horrible sights you can ever imagine,” he later recounted in a letter to his wife. “I gazed upon dead bodies laying here and there. The houses all blown to pieces. . . And when I got to the gulf and bay coast, I saw hundreds of houses all destroyed with dead bodies all lying in the ruins, little babies in their mothers’ arms.”
The authorities first tried to dispose of the bodies by towing them in barges out to sea. But the bloated corpses floated back to shore. Most bodies were burned in large pyres onshore, a process that continued for more than 6 weeks. Family, friends, and neighbors watched as about 1 in every 6 of their number went up in smoke with the wreckage of the city.
The storm headed inland as far as Ontario, Canada, weakened but still dangerous. Thirteen lost their lives on Lake Erie with the sinking of two steamships. The Canadian fishing fleet took heavy losses of ships and sailors. The storm headed into the North Atlantic September 13 and eventually died.
GALVESTON’S NEW COASTAL DEFENSE SYSTEM included a massive wall that stood between the sea and most of the city center by 1904. Subsequent additions extended the wall for 10 miles (16 kilometers). (Credit: Courtesy of the ROSENBERG LIBRARY, Galveston, Texas)
City on the Mend
The great storm had proved Isaac Cline tragically wrong about Galveston’s vulnerability to hurricanes. In response, the survivors decided to harden Galveston Island against flood tides and surf. On the ocean coast, Galveston built a massive seawall to protect the city’s core. It has grown over the years. Today, the concrete wall measures 16 feet (4.9m) at its base, rises 15.6 (4.8m) feet above sea level, and spans more than 10 miles (16 km).
To protect against flooding, engineers raised the island’s elevation, pitching it 1 foot per 1,500 feet of distance from the high side at the seawall toward the north shore. This required 16 million cubic yards of fill. Buildings were raised on screw jacks so sandy fill could be pumped underneath. The same went for sewer and gas lines.
The fill material was a slurry of water and sand dredged from the ship channel between Galveston and Pelican Island. Workers pumped it through pipes into the spaces beneath the suspended buildings. Gradually, the fill drained and hardened. By 1911, some parts of the city were raised as much as 11 feet (3.4m).
Life went on for Cline, too. He moved to New Orleans in 1901 to become forecaster- in-charge of the Weather Bureau’s Gulf District. He was responsible for the coast stretching from Texas to Florida. In addition to his regular duties, Cline continued to study tropical cyclones. He developed a method for tracking and forecasting storm trajectories based on detailed meteorological data collected in front of and to the sides of storms. Cline collected detailed data on 16 cyclones from 1900 to 1924. He published his observations and methods for charting storms in a book, Tropical Cyclones, in 1924. Cline retired in 1935. He remained an art dealer in New Orleans’ French Quarter until his death in 1955.
Storms to Come?
The reconstruction of the Oleander City buried most of Galveston’s trees and well-maintained gardens and greenery. So were the graves of many past residents. Galveston was, in a real sense, a city whose slate had been wiped clean and rewritten.
One fact about Galveston remains the same: It is vulnerable to attack from the sea. After a 1915 hurricane comparable to the 1900 tempest, much of the city flooded, although not catastrophically. Structures behind the seawall generally survived the onslaught. But as the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster reminded us, it never pays to underestimate the destructive potential of hurricanes. Although we may be able to forecast storms much better and mandate evacuation plans that can save thousands of lives, nothing can stop a hurricane on the move — except its collision with the coast. Galveston and thousands of other seaside communities can only wait to see what nature has to dish out in future storms.
This story originally appeared under the headline “How Galveston survived America’s deadliest storm” in the 2008 Extreme Weather special issue .