Galveston, Texas, was a wealthy seaport city in the late 1800s, full of successful businesses and lively neighborhoods. Only 30 miles long and about 2 miles wide, the small island nevertheless had a thriving population of about 40,000. Electricity and telephones had arrived in Galveston before any other Texas city, adding to the air of excitement that surrounded the island in those days. By all accounts, the city had a bright, prosperous future. Then, on Sept. 8, 1900, the Great Storm hit.
Between 6,000 and 8,000 people were killed in the span of a few hours, making it the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
More than 3,000 homes were destroyed by the hurricane.
Photos courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Although that Saturday morning began with rain and rising tides, Galveston's citizens were not anticipating severe weather. Earlier in the week, the Galveston Weather Bureau received word of an approaching storm, but forecasts indicated it would head for Florida. Most people paid little attention to the black-and-red hurricane warning flag that Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief local forecaster at the Galveston Weather Bureau, raised on Friday. The city had weathered plenty of hurricanes in the past.
By early Saturday afternoon, the southern and eastern streets of the island were flooded. Winds were picking up speed, and as darkness fell they reached 80 mph. After recording wind speeds of 100 mph, the wind gauge at the weather bureau office blew away sometime during the evening.
Isaac Cline later estimated that winds reached 120 mph at the height of the storm. Combined with a storm surge of almost 16 feet, the unprepared city was torn apart. Entire families drowned, buildings collapsed and floated away, and debris covered every area of the island.
By today's standards, it would be considered a Category 3 or 4 hurricane: The winds rank it as Category 3, but the storm surge qualifies as Category 4.
|Around midnight on Sept. 8, the winds died down and the floodwaters began to recede. The Great Storm was over, but its effects would linger for years. Survivors emerged to find bodies everywhere in the streets, on the beaches, buried under piles of rubble. No one knows exactly how many people died in the storm; some accounts listed the total as high as 12,000, although most historians believe the number was closer to 7,000 or 8,000. Many people drowned in the storm surge, and some were killed by flying debris. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed. Property damage was estimated at $7 million (comparable to $700 million today).
Residents emerged after the storm to find most of the island in shambles.
On Sunday, the day after the hurricane, people began to bury some of the bodies where they were found. The next day, more than 700 bodies were taken out to sea on barges, weighted and dropped into the water. By Tuesday, city officials decided funeral pyres were necessary to handle the overwhelming number of bodies, and for weeks the fires burned in the streets.
Galveston spent years recovering from the devastating storm. During that time, trade lines were rerouted to bypass the island port, and the city's role in the Texas economy was changed forever. It would never again be the thriving business center it was before the storm.
Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief local forecaster at the Galveston Weather Bureau, estimated that wind speeds reached 120 mph during the storm.
| But the island did recover, and while its
financial status was undeniably changed, it was in other ways
stronger than ever before. From 1902-1904, Galveston and the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 17-foot-high seawall along
the Gulf side of the island, protecting the city from 6th Street
to 39th Street. In years since, that wall has been extended to
The Army Corps also raised the entire city by placing homes and other structures on jacks or stilts, and then adding wet sand below each structure until the sand was level with the base of the building.
Today, Galveston is a popular seaside resort town. Plaques and historical sites throughout the island remind visitors of the Great Hurricane of 1900 and illustrate one community's ability to recover from tragedy.
Read Part 2.
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