On Sept. 8, 1900, a hurricane ripped through Galveston, then Texas’s largest city, and became one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
The city was important to the shipping industry and was a vacation spot for the wealthy. It also was technologically forward, introducing telephones and electricity before many other cities.
A Brewing Storm
The Cubans were very good hurricane forecasters in the late 19th century. In early September, a hurricane passed north of Cuba, and the forecasters predicted it would head into the Gulf of Mexico. Information from Cuba, however, was blocked in Washington D.C.
Willis Moore, director of the Weather Bureau, said no local meteorologists could issue a hurricane warning without it going through the bureau first. The bureau’s prediction was that the hurricane would move up the Atlantic coast.
As the hurricane approached Galveston, meteorologist Isaac Cline knew his supervisors’ forecast had been wrong, but he had no way of knowing by how much.
Killer Galveston Storm
“Wind speeds surpassed 135 miles per hour, making it a category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Storm surges rose 15 feet and, within hours, estimates of 6,000 to 12,000 unwary people were killed and over 3,600 buildings were destroyed.”
The storm made 10,000 residents homeless and left destruction in its wake. Most victims perished from the 20-foot storm waters or from debris. In some cases, entire families were missing.
So many people died, there was nowhere to bury them. Bodies dumped at sea later washed ashore. Other bodies were burned in a funeral pyre.
The financial cost also was high, totaling in the hundreds of billions in today’s money.
After the storm, the community rebuilt, the city was raised several feet above sea level, and a seawall was added to help protect the area from swells.
The rest of the country were unware of what had happened.
“Galveston is shut off from the rest of the earth,” the Austin Daily Statesman said on Sept. 9. “Neither telegraph company or the telephone company has a wire left standing. Not a train has come in or gone out today, and none will get through tonight.”
There was a “dire suspicion that an awful calamity befell the city,” the newspaper said.
Survivors would never forget the horror.
“I had only got part way out when the house fell on us,” Milton Elford said in a letter to his brothers. “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.”
First Disaster Caught on Film
The following is film footage taken of the aftermath of the storm.
Updated: 14 October 2020