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Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

"Nature will win if we decide that we can beat it."

There is a detailed account of the devastating 1900 hurricane that struck Galveston in Reference.com [note: no longer there]:

Galveston Hurricane of 1900 The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 made landfall on the city of Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. It had estimated winds of 135 miles per hour (217 km/h), making it a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale...

The death toll has been estimated to be between 6,000 and 12,000 individuals. The number most cited in official reports is 8,000, giving the storm the third-highest number of casualties of any Atlantic hurricane, after the Great Hurricane of 1780, and 1998's Hurricane Mitch. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is to date the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States...

The city The city of Galveston at the end of the 19th century was a booming metropolis with a population of 38,000. Its position on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay along the Gulf of Mexico made it the center of trade in the state of Texas. With this prosperity came a sense of complacency. A quarter of a century earlier, the nearby town of Indianola on Matagorda Bay was undergoing its own boom and was second to Galveston among Texas ports. Then in 1875, a powerful hurricane blew through, nearly destroying the town. Indianola was rebuilt, but a second hurricane in 1886 caused residents to simply give up and move elsewhere. Many residents of Galveston took the destruction of Indianola as an object lesson on the threat posed by hurricanes. Galveston was a low, flat island, little more than a giant sandbar along the gulf coast. They called for a seawall to be constructed to protect the city, but their concerns were dismissed by the majority of the population and the city's government. Since its formal founding in 1839, the city of Galveston had weathered numerous storms, which the city survived with ease. Residents believed any future storms would be no worse than previous events. In order to provide an official meteorological statement on the threat of hurricanes, Galveston Weather Bureau section director Isaac Cline wrote an 1891 article in the Galveston News in which he argued not only that a seawall was not needed to protect the city, but that it would be impossible for a hurricane of significant strength to strike the island. 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.

Origins The storm's origin is a bit murky due to the limited observation ability at the end of the 19th century. Ship reports were the only reliable tool for observing hurricanes at sea, and because wireless telegraphy was in its infancy, these reports were not available until the ships put in at a harbor. Like most powerful Atlantic hurricanes, the 1900 storm is believed to have begun as a Cape Verde-type hurricane - a tropical wave moving off the western coast of Africa. The first formal sighting of the hurricane's precursor occurred on August 27, about one thousand miles (1,600 km) east of the Windward Islands when a ship recorded an area of "unsettled weather". Three days later, Antigua reported a severe thunderstorm passing over, followed by the hot, humid calmness that often occurs after the passage of a tropical cyclone. By September 1, US Weather Bureau observers were reporting on a "storm of moderate intensity (not a hurricane)" southeast of Cuba.

Warning signs The year was going well for Galveston. The Texas Heroes Monument was dedicated on April 21, the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto. Cotton season opened on September 1, and Galveston had become the largest cotton port in the country. Labor Day came on September 3 with a parade of dockworkers and cotton stuffers.

On September 4, the Galveston office of the US 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.

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.

The storm was reported to be north of Key West on September 6, and in the early morning hours of Friday, September 7, the Weather Bureau office in New Orleans, Louisiana issued a report of heavy damage along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. Details of the storm were not widespread; damage to telegraph lines limited communication. The Bureau's central office in Washington, DC ordered storm warnings raised from Pensacola, Florida to Galveston.

By the afternoon of the 7th, large swells from the southeast were observed on the Gulf, and clouds at all altitudes began moving in from the northeast. Both of these observations are consistent with a hurricane approaching from the east. The Galveston Weather Bureau office raised its double square flags; a hurricane warning was in effect.

The ship Louisiana encountered the hurricane at 1pm that day after departing New Orleans. Captain Halsey estimated wind speeds of 150 mi/h.

Weather Bureau forecasters believed the storm would travel northeast and affect the mid-Atlantic coast. Cuban forecasters disagreed, saying the hurricane would continue west. One Cuban forecaster predicted the hurricane would continue into central Texas near San Antonio.

Early the next morning, the swells continued despite only partly cloudy skies. Largely because of the unremarkable weather, few residents heeded the warning. Few people evacuated across Galveston's bridges to the mainland, and the majority of the population was unconcerned by the rain clouds that had begun rolling in by mid-morning.

Local legend has it that Isaac Cline took it upon himself to travel along the beach and other low-lying areas warning people personally of the storm's approach. This is based on Cline's own reports and has been called into question in recent years.

Cline's role in the disaster is the subject of some controversy. Supporters point to Cline's issuing a hurricane warning without permission from the Bureau's central office. Detractors (including author Erik Larson) point to Cline's earlier insistence that a seawall was unnecessary and his belief that an intense hurricane could not strike the island.

The storm

Washington, D.C.
Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union
Houston, Texas

Do you hear anything about Galveston?

Willis L. Moore
Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau

The last train to reach Galveston left Houston on the morning of the 8th at 9:45 am. It found the tracks washed out, and passengers were forced to transfer to a relief train on parallel tracks to complete their journey. Even then, debris on the track kept the train's progress at a crawl.

The ninety-five travelers on the train from Beaumont weren't so lucky. They found themselves at the Bolivar Peninsula waiting for the ferry that would carry them, train and all, to the island. When they arrived, the high seas forced the ferry captain to give up on his attempt to dock. The train attempted to return the way it had come, but rising water blocked its path.

By early afternoon, a steady northeastern wind had picked up. By 5 pm, the Bureau office was recording sustained hurricane force winds. That night, the wind direction shifted to the east, and then to the southeast as the hurricane's eye began to pass over the island.

One of the last messages that reached the mainland was from Cline at 3:30 pm, reporting "Gulf rising, water covers streets of about half of city." After that, the telegraph lines were cut.

The highest measured wind speed was 100 mi/h (160 km/h) just after 6 pm, but the Weather Bureau's anemometer was blown off the building shortly after that measurement. The eye passed over the city around 8 pm. Maximum winds were estimated at 120 mi/h at the time, but later estimates placed the hurricane at the higher Category 4 position on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. The lowest recorded barometric pressure was 28.48 inHg (964.4 hPa), considered at the time to be so low as to be obviously in error. Modern estimates place the storm's central pressure at 27.49 inHg (930.9 hPa).At the Bolivar Lighthouse, ten refugees from the Beaumont train took refuge with two hundred residents of Port Bolivar. The eighty-five that stayed with the train died when the storm surge overran the tops of the cars.

By 11 pm, the wind was southerly and diminishing. On Sunday morning, a 20 mi/h breeze off the Gulf of Mexico greeted the survivors as they put aside the terror of the storm. The skies were clear as they realized what horror the cleanup would be.

The storm continued on, and was tracked into Oklahoma. From there, it continued over the Great Lakes, and passed north of Halifax, Nova Scotia on September 12. From there it travelled into the North Atlantic where it disappeared from observations.


Houston, Texas
11:25 P.M.
Sept. 9, 1900

To: Willis Moore
Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau

First news from Galveston just received by train which could get no closer to the bay shore than six miles where Prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About two hundred corpses counted from train. Large Steamship stranded two miles inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling. Weather clear and bright here with gentle southeast wind.

G.L. Vaughan
Western Union, Houston

At the time of the 1900 storm, the highest point in the city of Galveston was only 8.7 feet (2.7 m) above sea level. The hurricane had brought with it a storm surge of over 15 feet (4.6 m), which washed over the entire island. 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 awesome as the damage to the city's buildings was, the human cost was even greater. Due to the destruction of the bridges to the mainland and the telegraph lines, no word of the city's destruction was able to reach the mainland. At 11am on the 9th, one of the few ships at the Galveston wharfs to survive the storm, the Pherabe, arrived in Texas City on the western side of Galveston Bay. It carried six messengers from the city. When they reached the telegraph office in Houston at 3am on the 10th, a short message was sent to Governor Joseph D. Sayers and President William McKinley: "I have been deputized by the mayor and Citizen's Committee of Galveston to inform you that the city of Galveston is in ruins." The messengers reported an estimated five hundred dead. This was considered to be an exaggeration.

The city of Houston knew a powerful storm had blown through, and had made ready to provide assistance. Workers set out by rail and ship for the island almost immediately. Rescuers arrived to find a city destroyed. Eight thousand people had lost their lives, a fifth of the island's population. Most 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.The bodies were so numerous that burial was not a viable option. Initially, the dead were taken out to sea and dumped. However, the currents of the gulf washed the bodies back onto the beach, so a new solution was needed. Funeral pyres were set up wherever the dead were found. In the aftermath of the storm, pyres burned for weeks.

More people were killed in this single storm than have been killed in the over three hundred hurricanes that have struck the United States since, combined, as of 2005.

Rebuilding Survivors set up temporary shelters in surplus US Army tents along the shore. They were so numerous that observers began referring to it as the "White City on the Beach". Others constructed so-called "storm lumber" homes, using salvageable material from the debris to build shelter.

By September 12, the first post-storm mail was received at Galveston. The next day, basic water service was restored, and Western Union began providing minimal telegraph service. Within three weeks, cotton was again being shipped out of the port.

Prior to the Hurricane of 1900, Galveston was considered to be a beautiful and prestigious city and was known as "the New York of the South." Only the nation's wealthiest were allowed to live there. Many people say that had it not been for the hurricane, Galveston would today be one of the nation's largest and most beautiful cities. However, development shifted north to Houston, which was enjoying the benefits of the oil boom. The dredging of the Houston Ship Channel in 1909 and 1914 ended Galveston's hopes of returning to its former state as a major industrial center.

Protection To prevent future storms from causing destruction like that of the 1900 hurricane, many improvements to the island were made. The first three miles (4.8 km) of the 17 foot (5.2 m) high Galveston Seawall were built beginning in 1902 under the direction of Henry Martyn Robert. An all-weather bridge was constructed to the mainland to replace the ones destroyed in the storm.

The most dramatic effort to protect the city 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 3000 ton St. Patrick's Church. The seawall and raising of the island were jointly named a National Historical Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 2001.

In 1915, a storm of similar strength and track to the 1900 hurricane struck Galveston. The 1915 storm brought a 12 foot (4 m) storm surge which tested the new seawall. Although 275 people lost their lives in the 1915 storm, this was a great reduction from the thousands that died in 1900.

The Galveston city government was reorganized into a commission government, a newly devised structure where the government is made of a small group of commissioners, each responsible for one aspect of governance. This was prompted by fears that the existing city council would be unable to handle the problem of rebuilding the city.

Today Galveston is considered the playground of Houston. Homes and other buildings that survived the hurricane have been preserved, and give much of the city a Victorian look. The seawall, since extended to ten miles (16 km), is now an attraction itself, as hotels and tourist attractions have been built along its length in seeming defiance of future storms.

The last reported survivor of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Mrs. Maude Conic of Wharton, Texas, died November 14, 2004 at the claimed age of 116. (However, census records indicate she was younger than that).

Modern observation and forecasting help ensure that if another storm of similar strength threatens Galveston, the city will not be caught by surprise.


"Nature will win if we decide that we can beat it."

— Bill Read, NWS Galveston, Isaac's Storm documentary

    Posted by on Thursday, September 22, 2005 at 04:14 AM in Economics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (21)


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