How Galveston Survived The Deadliest Hurricane in American History

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

(Credit: Extreme Weather/Kellie Jaeger)

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.

dead bodies hurricane galveston texas natural disaster

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.

Stormy Water

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.

damage from galveston hurricane houses smashed

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)

Isaac Cline

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 it 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.

map of path of galveston hurricane 1900 texas

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.”

map of galveston bay

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)

Disaster Day

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.

Galveston Mourns

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.

hurricane barrier wall galveston texas

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.

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