As we slide into a hurricane season that forecasts many storms, this deadly storm teaches alertness versus complacency saves lives.
When Galveston, Texas, woke up on September 8, 1900, the city was well on its way to becoming the most prosperous city in the nation, brimming with activity, commerce, and confidence. Its nicknames were the Ellis Island of the South and Wall Street of the Southwest. But on the morning of September 9 it was a city decimated and humbled by nature, with 8,000 dead, its businesses and homes unrecognizable, its hope swept away by what even now in 2010 is still the deadliest weather disaster in American history. And its previous prominence had forever moved further north to the city of Houston.
Every island in the Caribbean has a name they fear; every coastal city or town in the hurricane belt that ever went through a direct hit will forever remember the name of the storm and the painful scars it left behind. Jamaica remembers Gilbert, Roatan remembers Mitch, St.Croix remembers Hugo, St.Maarten fears the name Luis, Miami will always remember the name Andrew, the Mississippi coastline would get real nervous today if Camille would be a name in the season’s line up, very few newborn girls in New Orleans will get the name Katrina for many years to come and Galveston Texas will forever remember September 8, 1900 as “the storm” or the “Galveston Flood”.
Before 1950 hurricanes did not have official names. They simply became known in the aftermath of the disaster as the 1900 storm that decimated Galveston or the 1935 storm that destroyed the Florida Keys. Today storms that result in death will be taken out of the name line up as the process of naming a storm is like naming a pet, it makes it very personal. Even though less personal, “the storm” that hit Galveston Texas on September 8th of the year 1900 became very personal for many, as it was for Isaac Cline, the chief of the U.S. Weather Service bureau in Galveston, who lost his pregnant wife, but miraculously saved his three children that night.
In his memoirs, meteorologist Cline referred to the morning after the storm as “a most beautiful day,” as it was indeed a sunny, warm day, the kind of day people came to Galveston for at the turn of the century. But few visitors would walk the sandy shores for many months after the infamous hurricane.
Instead, bodies of the dead that were improperly buried at sea washed back ashore on those beaches, leaving even more treacherous work for the cleanup crews. The storm left behind a horrendous legacy that extended across the country, as families moved from the island, they carried with them the story of that night and the burn piles of the aftermath.
In 1891 young Dr. Isaac Cline, appointed 2 years earlier to the post of chief meteorologist, wrote an article in the Galveston Daily News in which he argued not only that a seawall was not needed to protect the city, but also that it would be impossible for a hurricane of significant strength to strike the island. As the result of this compelling essay the seawall was not built, and development activities on the island actively increased its vulnerability to storms. Sand dunes along the shore were cut down to fill low areas in the city, removing what little barrier there was to the Gulf of Mexico. Nine years later those words came back to haunt him.
Due to its natural deepwater channel Galveston had become the most important seaport in Texas as trains carried cargo to and from the port and ships traveled across the seas. The Panama Canal was not built yet, so a lot of West Coast production with a European destination was shipped via Galveston’s rail connection. The town was populated by more than 42,000 people of which some 37,000 residents and wealth and prosperity was abound. Because many rich Texans dwelled on the island, it was home to many firsts, like electricity, public water systems and telephone.
But the same characteristics of coastal living that made the city attractive to its residents and guests, left it vulnerable to nature’s tempestuous storms.
On September 4, the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau began receiving warnings from the Bureau’s central office in Washington, D.C. that a “tropical storm” had moved northward over Cuba. The Weather Bureau forecasters had no way of knowing where the storm was or where it was going. At the time, they discouraged the use of terms such as tornado or hurricane to avoid panicking residents in the path of any storm event. Conditions in the Gulf of Mexico were ripe for further strengthening of the storm. The Gulf had seen little cloud cover for several weeks, and the seas were as warm as bathwater, according to one report. For a storm system that feeds off moisture, the Gulf of Mexico was enough to boost the storm from a tropical storm to a hurricane in a matter of days, with further strengthening likely.
In 1900 there were no refined instruments nor hurricane hunters and satellite observations like we have today. Forecasting was a matter of guessing based on available data. Most Weather Bureau forecasters predicted the storm to bend northeast ward, but Cuban forecasters who had had the opportunity to follow the storm as it moved as a tropical storm from east to west over their island, claimed that central Texas would be the target for landfall.
Galveston Island did not have a telling history with hurricanes or tropical cyclones as they were called then. All that meteorologist Cline had at his disposal was a barometer, thermometer, wind speed reader and his personal observation. And even though he observed gulf water creeping over the low ends of the island at 5am, a full 15 hours before the wrath of nature fully exposed itself, residents continued about their daily activities as children played in the rising flood waters.
From atop the National Weather Service bureau, Cline watched storm swells rise, the barometer drop and the winds grow stronger as the day moved on. He rode up and down the beach on his horse urging visitors to go home and residents within three blocks of the beach to move to higher ground. Of course higher ground was a relative term on an island where the highest house in the city was at an elevation between 8 and 9 feet.
And as so often during hurricane warnings, Cline’s plea would prove fruitless as the night approached and tens of thousands were caught in the fury.
Many years later Cline wrote in his memoirs “Storms, Flood and Sunshine,”(1945, Pelican Publishing) that by the peak of the storm, no part of the island remained dry as “In reality, there was no island, just the ocean with houses standing out of the waves which rolled between them.”
At the last daylight, he walked home through deep water and found refuge with some 50 people at his house near the beach, which he thought to be one of the best sheers in that part of town.
The hurricane brought with it a storm surge of over 15.7 feet (4.9 m), which washed over the entire island with a highest elevation of only 8.7 feet. The surge knocked buildings off their foundations and the surf pounded them to pieces. Over 3,600 homes were destroyed and a wall of debris faced the ocean as it kept knocking over other structures like a giant game of bowling.
The highest measured wind speed was 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) just after 6 p.m., but the Weather Bureau’s anemometer was blown off the building shortly after that measurement was recorded. The eye-wall passed over the city around 8 p.m. and maximum winds were estimated at 135 mph by later estimates, which made it a Category 4 storm on the Saffir Simpson Hurricane Scale . The worst of the storm was over by midnight, a mere 4 hours later, hours most survivors would remember for the rest of their lives.
After the storm had passed only 20 people that had sought shelter at Cline’s residence were still among the living.
An estimated 8,000 people died that night or 1 in 5 of the island’s population, making it still the deadliest storm in US history. Most of the dead 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 several days trapped under the wreckage of the city, with rescuers unable to reach them. Initially the dead were buried at sea, but once it was discovered that they landed back up on the beaches, huge funeral pyres were lit. A further 30,000 people were left homeless.
To prevent future storms from causing destruction like that of the 1900 hurricane, many improvements to the island were made. The first 3 miles (4.8 km) of the 17-foot (5 m) high Galveston Seawall were built beginning in 1902 while an all-weather bridge was constructed to the mainland to replace the ones destroyed in the storm.
In 1915, a storm similar in strength and track to the 1900 hurricane struck Galveston and brought a 12-ft (4-m) storm surge which tested the new seawall. Although 53 people on Galveston Island lost their lives in the that storm, this was a great reduction from the 8,000 thousand that had died 15 years earlier.
The most dramatic effort to protect the city from future storm impacts was its raising. Dredged sand was used to raise the city of Galveston by as much as 17 feet (5.2 m) above its previous elevation. Over 2,100 buildings were raised in the process, including the 3,000-ton St. Patrick’s Church.
A Survivor’s Tale
One of the thirty-three accounts in the famed Rosenberg Library in Galveston, is a letter written by John D. Blagden to his family in Duluth, Minnesota, while serving a temporary assignment at the Galveston Weather Bureau office away from his permanent station in Memphis, Tennessee. Aside from Isaac Cline’s personal report, Blagden’s letter is the only other account at the Rosenberg Library of someone stationed at the Weather Bureau office.
Sept 10, 1900
To All at home
Very probably you little expect to get a letter from me from here but here I am alive and without a scratch. That is what few can say in this storm swept City. I have been here two weeks, to take the place of a man who is on a three months leave, after which I go back to Memphis.
Of course you have heard of the storm that passed over this place last Friday night, but you cannot realize what it really was. I have seen many severe storms but never one like this. I remained in the office all night. It was in a building that stood the storm better than any other in the town, though it was badly damaged and rocked frightfully in some of the blasts. In the quarter of the city where I lodged (south part) everything was swept and nearly all drowned. The family with whom I roomed were all lost. I lost everything I brought with me from Memphis and a little money, but I think eighty Dollars will cover my entire loss: I am among the fortunate ones.
The Local Forecast Official, Dr. Cline, lives in the same part of the City and his brother (one of the observers here) boarded with him. They did not fare so well. Their house went with the rest and were out in the wreckage nearly all night. The L O F (Dr. Cline) lost his wife but after being nearly drowned themselves they saved the three children. As soon as possible the next morning after the waters went down I went out to the south end to see how they fared out there. I had to go through the wreckage of buildings nearly the entire distance (one mile) and when I got there I found everything swept clean. Part of it was still under water.
I could not even find the place where I had been staying. One that did not know would hardly believe that that had been a part of the city twenty-four hours before. I could not help seeing many bodies though I was not desirous of seeing them. I at once gave up the family with whom I stayed as lost which has proved true as their bodies have all been found, but the Clines I had more confidence in in regard to their ability to come out of it. I soon got sick of the sights out there and returned to the office to put things in order as best I could. When I got to the office I found a note from the younger Cline telling me of the safety of all except the Drs. wife. They were all badly bruised from falling and drifting timber and one of the children was very badly hurt and they have some fears as to her recovery.
Mr. Broncasiel, our printer, lives in another part of the town that suffered as badly is still missing and we have given him up as lost. There is not a building in town that is uninjured. Hundreds are busy day and night clearing away the debris and recovering the dead. It is awful. Every few minutes a wagon load of corpses passes by on the street.
The more fortunate are doing all they can to aid the sufferers but it is impossible to care for all. There is not room in the buildings standing to shelter them all and hundreds pass the night on the street. One meets people in all degrees of destitution. People but partially clothed are the rule and one fully clothed is an exception. The City is under military rule and the streets are patrolled by armed guards.
They are expected to shoot at once anyone found pilfering. I understand four men have been shot today for robbing the dead. I do not know how true it is for all kind of rumors are afloat and many of them are false. We have neither light, fuel or water. I have gone back to candles. I am now writing by candlelight.
A famine is feared, as nearly all the provisions were ruined by the water which stood from six to fifteen feet in the streets and all communication to the outside is cut off.
For myself, I have no fear. I sleep in the office. I have food to last for some time and have water, and means of getting more when it rains as it frequently does here and besides I have made friends here who will not let me starve. We had warning of the storm and many saved themselves by seeking safety before the storm reached here. We were busy all day Thursday answering telephone calls about it and advising people to prepare for danger. But the storm was more severe than we expected.
Dr. Cline placed confidence in the strength of his house. Many went to his house for safety as it was the strongest built of any in that part of the town, but of the forty odd who took refuge there less than twenty are now living.
I have been very busy since the storm and had little sleep but I intend to make up for sleep tonight. I do not know how or where I can send this but will send it first chance. Do not worry on my account.
John D. Blagden