How the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Became the Deadliest U.S. Natural Disaster

How the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Became the Deadliest U.S. Natural Disaster


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The deadliest natural disaster in American history remains the 1900 hurricane in the island city of Galveston, Texas. On September 8, a category four hurricane descended on the town, destroying more than 3,600 buildings with winds surpassing 135 miles per hour.

Estimates of the death toll range from 6,000 to 12,000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Tragically, the magnitude of the disaster could’ve been lessened if the U.S. Weather Bureau hadn’t implemented such poor communication policies.

When the storm picked up in early September of 1900, “any modestly educated weather forecaster would’ve known that” it was passing west, says Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over in Cuba, where scientists had become very good at tracking storms in the hurricane-prone Caribbean, they “knew that a hurricane had passed to the north of Cuba and was headed to the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Weather Bureau in Washington, however, predicted that the storm would pass over Florida and up to New England—which was very, very wrong.

“I mean they were just way off target,” he says.

The Weather Bureau—predecessor to the National Weather Service—was only 10 years old, and hurricane science in the U.S. wasn’t very advanced. “Galveston occurred at a very interesting time in the science of hurricanes,” Emanuel notes.

The bureau’s director, Willis Moore, “was so jealous of the Cubans that he shut off the flow of data from Cuba to the U.S.,” he says. At the same time, Moore told regional U.S. forecasters that “that they could not on their own issue a hurricane warning, they had to go through Washington”—not a very quick or easy task, in those days.

The combination of blocking information from Cuba, while also making it difficult for local forecasters to report hurricanes, turned out to be deadly.

In the couple days before the storm hit, the Weather Bureau’s chief observer in Galveston, Isaac Cline, began to suspect that Washington’s forecast had been off. He tried to warn the city, but it was too late. Cline’s wife was killed, the port city was devastated, and Galveston was never able to fully recover.

The 1900 hurricane was a wake-up call that the Weather Bureau needed to have better communication channels if it wanted to keep people safe.

“The Galveston hurricane made people realize you can’t play politics with a weather bureau,” Emanuel says. “If you make it political, people will die.”

U.S. hurricane science wouldn’t really take off until the 1940s. But after Galveston, the bureau began to open up communication channels both internationally and within the the country. Although the U.S. had begun to send wireless messages out to sea before the hurricane, the practice became more widespread after Galveston.

Today, the U.S. is good at accurately forecasting hurricanes and communicating storm paths to affected areas. “We have come light years from where we were in 1900,” says Jay Barnes, a hurricane historian who has written about storms in North Carolina and Florida.

The bigger problem, which Galveston would still have faced if it had been properly warned in 1900, is the logistical challenge of evacuating large metropolitan areas in short amounts of time, Emanuel says.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans because of government negligence, not an inability to accurately predict and communicate the storm’s path. Hurricane Harvey, which wreaked havoc in Houston as well as modern-day Galveston in August 2017, was also well-forecasted. But without functional emergency plans for mass evacuations, cities still end up suffering from natural disasters—even if they can see them coming.


Galveston hurricane of 1900

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Galveston hurricane of 1900, also called Great Galveston hurricane, hurricane (tropical cyclone) of September 1900, one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, claiming more than 8,000 lives. As the storm hit the island city of Galveston, Texas, it was a category 4 hurricane, the second strongest designation on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale.

The storm was first detected on August 27 in the tropical Atlantic. The system landed on Cuba as a tropical storm on September 3 and moved on in a west-northwest direction. In the Gulf of Mexico the storm rapidly intensified. Citizens along the Gulf Coast were warned that the hurricane was approaching however, many ignored the warnings. On September 8 the storm reached Galveston, which at the time had a population of approximately 40,000 and benefited economically and culturally from its status as the largest port city in Texas. The storm tides (storm surges) of 8–15 feet (2.5–4.5 metres) and winds at more than 130 miles (210 km) per hour were too much for the low-lying city. Homes and businesses were easily demolished by the water and wind. Some 8,000 lives were lost, according to official estimates, but as many as 12,000 people may have died as a result of the storm. From Galveston the storm moved on to the Great Lakes and New England, which experienced strong wind gusts and heavy rainfall.

After the hurricane, Galveston raised the elevation of many new buildings by more than 10 feet (3 metres). The city also built an extensive seawall to act as a buffer against future storms. Despite the reconstruction, the city’s status as the premier shipping port was lost to Houston a few years after the disaster.


More Than a Century Later, This Texas Hurricane Remains America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster

By the time meteorologist Isaac Cline warned his fellow citizens, it was too late.

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On this day in 1900, a hurricane made landfall in the island city of Galveston, Texas. Galveston was a rich port city, but it was less than 10 feet above sea level, and it wasn’t prepared for a hurricane. In fact, Cline, who was the city’s connection to the national weather services, had publicly stated that a hurricane would never make landfall in Galveston as part of a campaign against building a seawall to protect the city. Sadly, according to the federal government, at leastو,000 people were killed in the natural disaster, which remains the deadliest in American history.

“Now rated a Category 4 tropical storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, the Great Galveston Hurricane occurred at a time when tropical storms weren’t named and the National Hurricane Center (NHC) did not yet exist,” writes Steve Melito for On This Day in Engineering History. But the United States Weather Services Bureau, which was established in the 1800s, maintained a local office where Cline worked.

The meteorologist, who also lived in Galveston with his wife and three daughters, was the city’s only frontline weather advisor. “Galvestonians had been aware of the storm since September 4, when it was reported moving northward over Cuba,” writes the Texas State Historical Association. “From the first, however, details had been sketchy because of poor communications.” The local residents had few incoming reports of the storm, as ships out at sea had no ability to communicate with the land and telegraph lines elsewhere were downed by the storm.

Because of the lack of communication, the historical association writes, the city’s 38,000 inhabitants were unaware the hurricane was heading for Galveston. Rain and wind were the only warnings. “Not even an encroaching tide disturbed them greatly,” the association writes. “Galvestonians had become used to occasional ‘overflows’ when high water swept beachfronts. Houses and stores were elevated as a safeguard.”

Cline, however, thought a hurricane was coming. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, on the morning of September 8, “Cline said he harnessed his horse to a cart, drove to the beach, and warned everyone of the impending danger from the storm–advising them to get to higher ground immediately.”

But his warnings had little effect on either Galveston locals or the tourists who flocked to the island’s miles of beaches in the warm months, writes History.com. Given that the island was completely overwhelmed by the hurricane, likely the only safe answer would have been to evacuate everyone via the bridges that connected Galveston to the mainland. Some people did take this route, the historical association writes, but not enough.

“Houses near the beach began falling first,” the historical association writes. “The storm lifted debris from one row of buildings and hurled it against the next row until eventually two-thirds of the city, then the fourth largest in Texas, had been destroyed.” Cline and his brother Joseph Cline kept sending reports to the national weather offices until the telegraph lines went down, NOAA writes.  

A massive wave, caused by the hurricane, buried the city under 15 feet of water, which receded, leaving ruins and a death toll of more than 8,000 people, according to NOAA. Among the dead was Cline’s wife, although his three daughters survived the storm. Images from Galveston’s public library show the destruction that came in the storm’s wake and the grisly task of retrieving and laying to rest thousands of bodies.

“Although Galveston was rebuilt, it never reestablished itself as the major port of call it once was,” NOAA writes. “The city was soon overshadowed by Houston, some miles inland and connected to the Gulf of Mexico by a canal.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance science and culture journalist based in Toronto.


'Your Heart Skips A Beat' Ahead Of Storms Like Harvey, Galveston Mayor Says

'Your Heart Skips A Beat' Ahead Of Storms Like Harvey, Galveston Mayor Says

"The water was comin' so fast. The wagon gettin' so it was floatin'. The poor mules swimmin' that was pullin'. And the men laid flat on their stomach, holdin' the little children."

Survivors wrote of wind that sounded "like a thousand little devils shrieking and whistling," of 6-foot waves coming down Broadway Avenue, of a grand piano riding the crest of one, of slate shingles turned into whirling saw blades, and of streetcar tracks becoming waterborne battering rams that tore apart houses.

"The animals tried to swim to safety and the frightened squawking chickens were roosting everywhere they could get above the water," Pauls remembered. "People from homes already demolished were beginning to drift into our house, which still stood starkly against the increasing fury of the wind and water."

A large part of the city of Galveston was reduced to rubble. AP hide caption

A large part of the city of Galveston was reduced to rubble.

At the height of the storm, John W. Harris remembered two dozen terrified people climbing in through the windows of their home on Tremont Street. His mother prepared for rising floodwaters by lashing her children together.

"Mother had a trunk strap around each one of us to hold onto us as long as she could," he recalled.

Rosenberg School, built of brick, became a refuge for Annie McCullough's family and many others.

National


The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: The Deadliest Natural Disaster in American History

“First news from Galveston just received by train which could get no closer to the bay shore than six miles where the prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About 200 corpses counted from the train. Large steamship stranded *Includes pictures
*Includes survivors' accounts of the hurricane
*Includes a bibliography for further reading
*Includes a table of contents

“First news from Galveston just received by train which could get no closer to the bay shore than six miles where the prairie was strewn with debris and dead bodies. About 200 corpses counted from the 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, Manager of Western Union in Houston, in a telegram to the Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau on the day after the hurricane.

In 2005, the world watched in horror as Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, and the calamity seemed all the worse because many felt that technology had advanced far enough to prevent such tragedies, whether through advanced warning or engineering. At the same time, that tends to overlook all of the dangers posed by hurricanes and other phenomena that produce natural disasters. After all, storms and hurricanes have been wiping out coastal communities ever since the first humans built them.

As bad as Hurricane Katrina was, the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900 killed several times more people, with an estimated death toll between 6,000-12,000 people. Prior to advanced communications, few people knew about impending hurricanes except those closest to the site, and in the days before television, or even radio, catastrophic descriptions were merely recorded on paper, limiting an understanding of the immediate impact. Stories could be published after the water receded and the dead were buried, but by then, the immediate shock had worn off and all that remained were the memories of the survivors. Thus, it was inevitable that the Category 4 hurricane wrought almost inconceivable destruction as it made landfall in Texas with winds at 145 miles per hour.

It was only well into the 20th century that meteorologists began to name storms as a way of distinguishing which storm out of several they were referencing, and it seems somewhat fitting that the hurricane that traumatized Galveston was nameless. Due to the lack of technology and warning, many of the people it killed were never identified, and the nameless corpses were eventually burned in piles of bodies that could not be interred due to the soggy soil. Others were simply buried at sea. The second deadliest hurricane in American history claimed 2,500 lives, so it’s altogether possible that the Galveston hurricane killed over 4 times more than the next deadliest in the U.S. To this day, it remains the country’s deadliest natural disaster.

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 chronicles the story of the deadliest hurricane in American history. Along with pictures of important people, places, and events, you will learn about the Galveston Hurricane like never before, in no time at all. . more


Blown Away: Galveston Hurricane, 1900

LOCATED ON A NARROW island that separates Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston, Texas, in 1900 was a prosperous port of 37,000. Residents had bragging rights to a number of Texas firsts: the first medical college in the state, the first electric lights and streetcars and the first public library all belonged to their city. Its illustrious past seemed to bode well for its future—until the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history changed things forever.

On Wednesday, September 5, 1900, the Galveston Daily News ran a tiny, 27-word squib in its weather section: A tropical disturbance was moving over western Cuba and heading for the south Florida coast. The notice was datelined “Washington, D.C.,” September 4. It was simply signed “Moore.” That was Willis Moore, director of the United States Weather Bureau.

Three days later, with no official warning, a Category 4 hurricane leveled Galveston and claimed at least 10,000 lives. The unnamed storm is still the deadliest in American history.

Accurate long-range tracking of hurricanes was hard to come by in 1900. But Moore’s notice was so wrong—about the nature of the storm and its direction—that it seems to suggest both meteorology and international communications remained in a primitive state. Nobody, one might assume, knew anything in advance about the hurricane’s strength or track.

But that’s far from the truth. As early as Monday, September 3, the storm was being observed by meteorologists in Cuba. They were perhaps the best in the world at assessing and predicting the tracks of hurricanes, and they knew the storm had grown into an unmistakably violent one headed for the Texas Gulf Coast. Why didn’t the U.S. Weather Bureau know that? The grim answer to that question had to do with a highly problematic relationship between the United States and Cuba following the Spanish-American War.

Cuban revolutionaries, assisted by the United States, had won independence from Spain in 1898. Yet in September 1900, the U.S. government still administered the island, and within the U.S. Weather Bureau, which had stations in the Caribbean, resentment and disdain for Cuban forecasting had become entrenched.

Meteorology, like much other science in Cuba, was the province of Jesuit priests. The Belen Observatory, founded by Father Benito Viñes in Havana in 1858, was perhaps the most advanced in the world. An extension of a Jesuit preparatory school, the observatory benefited from the long Jesuitical tradition of inquiry, experimentation, publishing and teaching.

There couldn’t have been a better place to learn how to forecast bad weather than Havana. Its tropical vegetation, wrought-iron balconies and painted stucco houses were routinely subjected to torrential downpours and violent wind. One year, a hurricane removed the observatory’s entire zinc roof.

Father Viñes hoped not only to advance meteoro-logical science but also to aid humankind. He soon made the small Havana observatory the hub of a forecasting network for the entire Caribbean Sea. He filled a storm notebook with descriptions of clouds, cross-referenced to instrument readings. He jotted down snippets of conversations with ship captains. He brought in telegraph reports and newspaper clippings.

From these data, Viñes created a system for understanding storm formation and making predictions. He published it all in newspapers so that ordinary people could understand and respond. But his real genius lay in interpreting the meaning of cloud formations and how they related to hurricanes: cirrostratus clouds and their plumiform type in particular.

Cirrostratus are high, gauzy clouds composed of ice crystals. They give a kind of cover through which a haloed moon may be seen or from which hazy sunshine emanates. Viñes realized that hurricanes tend to produce these cirrostratus clouds—but only on the outer edges of a system. He began to suspect that those clouds are created by winds flowing off a hurricane system miles high. So if you were to see cirrostratus clouds in the tropics, Father Viñes deduced, you might really be seeing the farthest outer edge of a hurricane, which you wouldn’t otherwise have any idea was out there. Because hurricanes are so massive—hundreds of miles across—the far outer edge may lie many days’ travel away from the storm’s deadly eye.

You know a hurricane is coming. And you still have time to act.

But not all forms of cirrostratus cloud signal the approach of a distant hurricane. The clouds must come in plumiform shape that is, they appear to spread across the sky, fanning upward in plumes that seem to be reaching out from a central point. The bottoms of these elongations, Viñes further deduced, point directly at the eye of the hurricane that produces them.

So now you also know the direction from which the hurricane is coming.

Using those theories, Father Viñes built a model by which meteorologists could accurately ascertain that a hurricane had formed, calculate roughly how far away it was, gauge how fast it was moving and even closely track its path. Soon he had a telegraphic network of storm observers working the entire Caribbean, integrating reports from every kind of colonial and independent government: Spanish, British, French, Danish, Dutch, Dominican, Venezuelan and American. Everything about Caribbean weather went through Father Viñes in Havana and traveled through telegraph weather networks in which the United States also participated.

AT THE U.S. WEATHER BUREAU in Washington, D.C., director Willis Moore made squelching Cuban forecasting one of the most important reforms he brought to the office. The bureau had been established as part of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps in 1870 when Moore took it over in 1895, he was determined to make it a model of efficiency. Perhaps most important, he tightened the rules concerning local forecasting—especially regarding storm warnings. Moore believed local weathermen had been over-warning the public. There was a tendency to sow panic. It created an unhappy impression that the bureau was not fully in control. From now on, all storm warnings would come from Moore at his hub in Washington. The local weathermen would cable regular temperature, atmosphere and wind condition reports to the central office, where clerks aggregated the morning data into a national weather map, which was then telegraphed back to each station. It was for Washington, not for local weathermen, to determine what was going on locally.

And for fear of panicking local populations, Moore banned certain words from all official weather reports: “Tornado.” And “cyclone.” And “hurricane.”

Moore also assigned Colonel Henry Harrison Chase Dunwoody, an officer in the old Signal Corps, to the bureau’s Caribbean weather station. Colonel Dunwoody had made his name by scoffing at the value of meteorological science in making predictions, especially when it came to hurricanes. The source, progress and ultimate course of a hurricane might as well be, according to Dunwoody, “a matter of divination.” To the Americans, Cuban forecasts seemed hysterical, despite their extraordinary history of accuracy. The superstitious lore of a backward people, the bureau believed, lacked the Yankee grit and know-how that was making America a great leader on the world stage.

So Moore and Dunwoody appointed one of their own to assert a big, strong, guiding American presence in Cuban forecasting: William B. Stockman, a veteran of the bureau going back to the Signal Corps days. Stockman set up shop in Havana and took charge of all the U.S. weather stations in the region. In one of his early reports, Stockman simply eradicated the entire history of the Cuban weather networks. He told Moore that Cubans had never heard of forecasting. The locals were “very very conservative,” Stockman reported, “and forecasting the approach of storms…was a most radical change.” It was especially important, Stockman advised, that the bureau not be guilty of causing “unnecessary alarm among the natives.”

And there was yet another problem with the Cuban weathermen. The Havana observatory, Stockman claimed, had been secretly piggybacking on U.S. reports. Agents in the bureau’s New Orleans station nabbed copies of the daily weather maps coming out of Washington, then sent the U.S. maps by undersea telegraph to Havana. Such shifty shenanigans allowed the Cubans, as Dunwoody put it, “to compete with this service.”

In other words, the Cubans never got things right, but when they did, it was because they stole U.S. data. Having pinched good reports, the Cuban forecasters whipped a silly, uneducated, overemotional population into frenzy with overblown warnings of monster storms.

IN LATE AUGUST 1900, Moore decided to deal once and for all with the Cuban annoyances. Hurricane season was well underway. This was the perfect time, Moore calculated, to shut down all communication between Cuban weathermen and the people of the United States. It would take some string pulling. Fortunately for Moore, the U.S. War Department controlled all of Cuba’s government-owned telegraph lines. Those were the same lines over which Father Viñes had established his fabled hurricane-warning system for the entire region. The War Department responded quickly to the Weather Bureau’s request to formally ban from those lines all messages referring to weather.

But Moore went further and banned direct communication between the U.S. Weather Bureau’s office in Havana and the office in New Orleans. Havana would report directly to Washington, and Washington would decide what information to give New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast.

Moore even reached out to Western Union, the commercial telegraph company. He couldn’t demand that Western Union censor private weather-related messages, but he could ask the company to manage what a later age would call bandwidth. He requested first priority for U.S. Weather Bureau transmissions. Next would come any non-weather-related messages. Cuban weather mes-sages were to get the lowest priority. Western Union showed a patriotic willingness to cooperate. Any private telegrams from Cuba to the United States regarding weather would be slowed, bumped or, Moore hoped, discarded. His blackout of Cuba was almost total.

On Monday, September 3, Father Lorenzo Gangoite, who had succeeded Father Viñes in Havana, observed a new storm. He saw that it was changing fast, twirling on its own axis as it zoomed across the spinning Earth—yet it hadn’t formed that perfect, and perfectly deadly, spiral that we associate with a hurricane. There wasn’t yet an eye of low pressure at the system’s center. Its winds, while hard and rough, still did not reach above 60 mph.

The storm nevertheless already had the power to knock down buildings and wash away train tracks on Cuba and other islands. Late Wednesday night, September 5, Father Gangoite observed a big halo around the moon. The halo did not dissipate. At dawn, the sky turned red—deep red—and “cirrus clouds,” Gangoite said later, “were moving from the west by north and northwest by north, with a focus on those same points.” To him that meant the storm had transformed drastically: It had gained intensity it had gained structure and prevailing winds were pushing it northwest. Following Father Viñes’ model, Father Gangoite thought he could tell exactly where the storm was going: the Texas Gulf Coast.

There was nothing Father Gangoite could do. Willis Moore had blocked the forecast. But he couldn’t stop the hurricane.

AT 6 A.M. THURSDAY, September 6, the people of Galveston, Texas, were looking forward to the weekend and hoping for relief from the heat. Everything certainly looked fine—if still and humid—when Isaac Cline, the Weather Bureau’s chief Galveston observer, took the morning readings from the top of the five-story Levy Building downtown. Barometric pressure within the normal range. Light winds. Temperature already 80 degrees—hot, but slightly cooler than it had been. The huge sky over the Levy Building and out to the calm Gulf was as clear and blue as could be.

At 8 a.m. the bureau confirmed the prediction it had telegraphed to Galveston the day before regarding a disturbance coming out of Cuba. “Not a hurricane,” Moore called it. (Evidently, you could use the word as long as you put “not” in front of it.) The course of this non-hurricane would not affect Galveston. The storm would instead go into a classic “recurve.” According to the bureau, storms exiting the Caribbean on a northerly trajectory could not continue on a northwestern track. A storm thundering out of Cuba over the Florida Straits must turn toward Florida, where it would sweep across the peninsula. Broken coastline on the Florida side of the Gulf would prevent the storm from hitting any landmass head-on, and it would lose what little power it had. The system, said the bureau, was “attended only by heavy rains and winds of moderate force” that could damage moored ships and shoreline property along the Florida coast. The storm would then move northeast, weakening as it went, and probably would “be felt as far northward as Norfolk by Thursday night and is likely to extend over the middle Atlantic and South New England states by Friday.” After that, the storm was expected to exit into the Atlantic somewhere in or above New England.

Weather stations at New Orleans and points east were authorized to hang the red-and-black storm-warning flags, letting ship captains know of moderately disturbed seas. But any residual action in the Gulf would quickly dissipate. And no warnings were in order west of New Orleans. Some fishermen on the New Jersey shore, having received the national report, cabled Moore for advice. Never one to hesitate, Moore cabled right back. “Not safe to leave nets in after tonight,” he warned them. A rough storm was headed their way, Moore was certain.

Moore was correct in believing that many hurricanes do “recurve.” But there also happened to be, at that moment in September 1900, a big zone of high pressure bordering the Florida Keys—that string of narrow islands curving from the tip of the state’s long peninsula—well to the east of the storm. This high-pressure zone caused an exception to the rule of hurricane recurve that Willis Moore thought was immutable. A recurve would have drawn the hurricane east toward Florida, but high pressure at the Keys pushed it away. Winds blowing from east to west off the Keys added to the pushback.

Drawing new energy constantly from the hot sea below, pulling those waves high upward, throwing wind in every direction as it circled, unleashing monstrous thunderclaps and streaks of jagged lightning and pouring hard rain, this complex of storms was also drawn west-northwest by low pressure there. Spinning counterclockwise, it had become a fully organized system of destruction turning around a large, roughly circular eye, some 30 miles in diameter.

At 1:59 p.m. Cline received a telegraphed report from Washington. The storm that had drenched Cuba was now, as expected, centered over southern Florida. That evening, in Galveston, Cline took the last readings for the day. It was hotter now—just over 90 degrees. The wind was out of the north. The barometer was down—but just barely. There were scattered clouds. Cline reported all of that to Washington and went home to bed.

Friday morning, September 7, everything stopped making sense. The Weather Bureau abruptly reversed its forecast, and Cline was ordered to raise the storm-warning flag. What Cline didn’t know was this: The weathermen in Washington had been getting surprising reports from local stations on the East Coast. The stormy weather predicted there had entirely failed to arrive. The winds that battered Key West did not start blowing in central Florida after all. Savannah and Charleston were not being drenched. Those fishermen in Long Branch, N.J., worrying about their nets had nothing to fear. There was only one conclusion. The men in Washington finally drew it. The storm that had left Cuba on Wednesday must still be in the Gulf of Mexico.

In Galveston Friday afternoon, a heavy swell formed southeast of the long Gulf beach. And it arrived with an ominous roar. The clouds, meanwhile, were coming from the northeast. Obviously, a severe storm was on the way. Thanks to the storm-warning flag, as well as to the crashing surf on the beach, the Weather Bureau office on the third floor of the Levy Building had become a scene of constantly ringing phones and people crowding in with questions. Ship captains, the harbormaster, businessmen and concerned citizens, official and civilian alike, wanted answers. While officials in Washington had recognized they were wrong about the storm’s track, on one point Moore remained insistent: This couldn’t be a hurricane.

All day Isaac Cline and his brother, Joseph, tried to fend off confusion and worry. They took turns dealing with the phones and the crowds and collecting weather data on the roof. The clouds had thickened. The day that had started clear was now cloudy. From out in the Gulf, the swells kept coming. By Friday night, rain had started falling steadily and Joseph Cline had a sense of impending disaster. He’d received reports from New Orleans, the weather station nearest to the center of the storm. It was southwest of the city and moving west.

Joseph knew that meant it was heading straight for Galveston.

About midnight, Joseph quickly created a new weather map based on the reports he was receiving by cable. He took the map to the post office to await the first train over the railroad bridge from Galveston Island to the Texas mainland. Then he went home to the house he shared with Isaac about three blocks from the beach and tried to sleep. Visions of hurricanes kept invading his dreams.

At 4 a.m. Saturday, September 8, he awoke with a start. He had a sudden, clear impression that Gulf water had flowed all the way into the yard. Joseph got up. From a south window, he peered down.

It wasn’t a dream. The yard really was under water. The Gulf was in town.

EPILOGUE: Defying the ban on local storm warnings, Isaac Cline sprang into action, urging beach residents and business owners to head for higher ground. But the highest point in Galveston was 8.7 feet above sea level, and the island was about to be engulfed by a 15-foot storm surge. At 3:30 Saturday afternoon, the Clines sent a cable to Moore in Washington. “Gulf rising rapidly,” it read. “Half the city now under water.”

Fifty people sought refuge in Cline’s stout brick house, which was knocked off its foundation Saturday night. All but 18, Cline wrote later, “were hurled into eternity,” among them his wife, Clara, pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. (The Clines’ three other daughters survived.) Across Galveston, the devastation was unimaginable: an estimated 6,000 dead in the city and another 4,000 to 6,000 on Galveston Island and the adjacent mainland. Property damage at the time was estimated to be $30 million in today’s dollars, that’s more than $700 million.

Willis Moore suffered no professional consequences for his decisions. On September 28, 1900, he commended the Clines and their assistant, John Blagden, for “heroic devotion to duty. . . .Through [your] efficient service…in the dissemination of warnings, thousands of people were enabled to move…and were thus saved.” The Weather Bureau slowly adopted hurricane-forecasting techniques in the coming years (though tornado warnings were officially banned until 1938). Moore was fired from the Weather Bureau in 1913 after charges of improper conduct in his campaign to secure a Cabinet post were referred to the Justice Department.

From the forthcoming book The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Disaster, the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900, by Al Roker. © 2015 by Al Roker. To be published August 11, 2015, by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.


How Galveston Survived The Deadliest Hurricane in American History

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.

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.

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 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.

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.”

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.

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 .


Deadliest natural disaster in US history hit Galveston in 1900, forever changing hurricane preparedness

The Great Storm of 1900 claimed the lives of 12,000 people, including 8,000 on the Island. No one saw it coming.

GALVESTON, Texas — The Great Storm of 1900 got its name because back then they didn’t name hurricanes and this one was like nothing before it and nothing after it.

Scientists at that time didn’t believe a catastrophic cyclone could form near Galveston because of how shallow the continental shelf is. Until September 8, 1900 proved that theory wrong when a category four hurricane slammed Galveston.

The lack of forecasting tools and no real warning system made the 1900 hurricane the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. It’s documented 12,000 people were killed, including 8,000 people on the Island.

A statue was later erected to remember the lives lost. And at the Rosenberg Library, memories of the hurricane are captured in several letters.

“The waters of the gulf were piled up by a formidable storm,” one reads.

Another witness said “the more substantial buildings, containing their hundreds of terrified humanity collapsed like shells crushing.”

The technology that gives us such early information about storms simply didn’t exist then.

“There’s no satellite. There’s no radar. There’s no aircraft reconnaissance. So you can’t really look down and see anything,” Lance Wood with the National Weather Service said.

“[They] didn’t even have any computer modeling. So you used land-based observations of just temperature pressure and then what you can see above you to sort of extrapolate what might happen with the weather system.”

According to Wood, there were some tools, but it was a far cry from what we have today.

They did have some communication via telegraph from Cuba a few days before, so that’s why some storm warnings were posted. However, you couldn’t measure how big the storm was or how intense if something is changing over the Gulf of Mexico.

If a storm was coming, two flags would be hoisted up and news had to travel through word of mouth.

But, in September 1900 as the storm bore down, it was a little too late. The powerful hurricane barreled into town, wrecking shipping and destroying homes and buildings that sat unprotected on the along the coastline.

In 1900, there was no seawall.

“What was interesting is before the 1900 storm, it had been proposed actually that it might be a good idea to protect yourself from the ocean, but it had been rejected,” Wood said. “It was quickly adopted that this is the way we need to go. And they began in 1902 to to build this 17-foot seawall. And it was complete by 1904.”

The seawall grew from 1904 through the 1960s to a little over 10 miles long. Galveston has made a few repairs for erosion in the years since, but there hasn’t been much change to the overall design.

While it was visionary one 120 years ago to build the seawall, today ongoing research is being done on how to build a more complete surge protection system to guard the great city we love.


#7 Great Galveston Hurricane is the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history

Estimates of the deaths caused due to the Galveston hurricane vary between 6,000 and 12,000 with the number cited in official reports being 8,000, around 20% of the island’s population. A further 30,000 were left homeless. With a death toll of 8,000, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history and the third deadliest Atlantic hurricane after the Great Hurricane of 1780 and 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. It killed more people than all tropical cyclones that have struck the United States since.


Galveston Hurricane storm flood. Deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

This 8 page newspaper has a one column headline on page 2: "THREE THOUSAND DEAD" with subheads. (see photos) This is actually a 1st report in this title due to it being a weekly newspaper.

Other news of the day. Usual browning with minor margin wear, otherwise good. Handle with care.

source: wikipedia: The Hurricane of 1900 made landfall on the city of Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. It had estimated winds of 135 mph (215 km/h) at landfall, making it a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.[1]

The hurricane caused great loss of life with the estimated death toll between 6,000 and 12,000 individuals[2] 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&rsquos Hurricane Mitch. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is to date the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States. By contrast, the second-deadliest storm to strike the United States, the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, caused approximately 2,500 deaths, and the deadliest storm of recent times, Hurricane Katrina, claimed the lives of approximately 1,800 people.

The hurricane occurred before the practice of assigning official code names to tropical storms was instituted, and thus it is commonly referred to under a variety of descriptive names. Typical names for the storm include the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the Great Galveston Hurricane, and, especially in older documents, the Galveston Flood. It is often referred to by Galveston locals as The Great Storm or The 1900 Storm.



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