Galveston Hurricane 9/8/1900
Updated: Jan 11
Due to so many natural disasters currently in the news, This month is dedicated to one of the worst natural disasters to hit the United States, though it is now largely forgotten.
On September 8th 1900, a Category 4 hurricane ripped through Galveston, Texas with winds reaching upwards of 145 mph (233 km/h), killing an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people. A 15-foot storm surge flooded the city, which was then situated at less than 9 feet above sea level, and numerous homes and buildings were destroyed.
BEFORE THE STORM
Positioned along the Gulf of Mexico on a natural harbor of Galveston Bay, the city of Galveston, Texas was the prime trade center and one of the biggest cities in the entire state of Texas by the end of the 19th century. In 1875, the nearby town of Indianola, located on Matagorda Bay, had been experiencing its own boom. Second in Texas port cities only to Galveston, it was hit by a powerful hurricane which destroyed the town. Though rebuilt, Indianola was again hit by a second hurricane in 1886. Giving up, the residents moved to other locals.
Built on a low, flat island, Galveston took heed of the lessons from Indianola, proposing a seawall be constructed to protect their own city, sitting on what was little more than a large sandbar along the Gulf Coast. Concerns of an eventual hurricane hitting Galveston were dismissed, unfortunately, by the majority of the population and city government. The lack of concern by the majority was that since its founding in 1839, Galveston had survived numerous storms with ease.
The Galveston Weather Bureau section director Isaac Cline had even written an article in the Galveston Daily News in 1891 arguing against a seawall as it was impossible for a significant strength hurricane to strike the island. No seawall was built and the sand dunes along the shore, the only barrier to the Gulf of Mexico, were cut down to develop and fill the low areas of the city.
As early as Sepember 4, Galveston received warnings of a "tropical storm" (as tornado or hurricane were avoided to keep residents from panicking) moving northward over Cuba. The Weather Burea forecasters mistakenly believed the storm would take a long turn into Florida, eventually exiting into the Atlantic. Cuban forecasters vehemently disagreed, warning the storm would continue west, predicting it would hit near San Antonio in central Texas. The majority of the population of Galveston were unconcerned as the weather remained mostly unremarkable, so very few families evacuated across the bridges to the mainland.
THE STORM HITS
When the hurricane hit, it was with such force, that buildings were ripped from their foundations and the surf pounded them into splintered debris. Over 3,600 homes crumbled into the ocean, with only a few solidly built mansions and homes along Strand District surviving. Today, they are maintained as tourist attractions.
The winds hitting Galveston were measured at 100 mph (160 km/h) after 6 pm when the Weather Bureau's anemometer was blown off the building. It was estimated that maximum winds were around 120 mph (190 km/h). The hurricane was later placed as a higher Category 4 classification (of the time). Due to the destruction of the bridges to the mainland and the telegraph lines, there was no word of Galveston's destruction.
The Pherabe, one of only a few ships in Galveston to survive the storm, arrived in Texas City on September 9 at 11 am with messengers from the city. The messengers reported an estimated five hundred dead, which was thought to be an exaggeration. Knowing a powerful storm had blown through the area, Houston was ready to provide assistance when the call for help finally came. What the rescuers found was a city completely destroyed, and an estimated 8,000 lives lost (20% of Galveston's population). The loss of life was later put in the range of 6,00 to 12,000. Most of those perishing drowned or were crushed by the debris laden waves of what once were homes. Many others surviving the storm died in the ensuing days, trapped in the debris, their screams heard while waiting for rescue.
The number of dead were staggering and the survivors were ill equipped to deal with the issue. The stench of decay was so bad, you could smell it from miles away. Too many to bury, the dead were initially weighted down on barges and buried at sea. Unfortunately, the gulf currents began washing many of the bodies back onto the beach. In desperation, funeral pyres were set up on the beaches, and anywhere bodies were found. These pyres burned day and night for several weeks. Those men conscripted to this grisly task were given free whiskey by authorities as a coping mechanism.
More people were killed in this one storm, than over 300 tropical cyclones up to 2009. With over 8,000 deaths and 30,000 families left homeless, the Galveston Hurricane still remains the deadliest natural disaster to befall the United States. As with most disasters, steps were made to rebuild Galveston better than before. A seawall was erected, homes were rebuilt, and measures were taken, so as not to repeat the storm of 1900.