100 Years Later: Remembering the
Great Hurricane of Galveston, Part II

Written by Christina Ward, Staff Writer, DisasterRelief.org

GALVESTON, TEX. — Sister Ursula O'Keeffe stood early Friday morning in front of a quiet crowd, her back to the breaking waves. This group, gathered a few miles outside of downtown Galveston, had come together on a patch of empty grass where the Sisters of Charity once built a wooden refuge for the young and homeless. "One hundred years ago today, at this time, at this place, there was an orphanage," O'Keeffe said. "It is so far away… and yet so near, it seems that you should hear the giggles of children at play."

On Sept. 8, 1900, the wealthy, thriving island of Galveston was ripped apart. A powerful hurricane churned up from the Gulf of Mexico and pummeled an unexpecting, unprepared population. In the span of a few hours, winds damaged thousands of buildings, turned trees to splinters and sent debris flying through the air with deadly force. But the worst damage came from the floodwaters, which eventually submerged the entire island. The port city known as the "Wall Street of the West" was left with nothing but carnage and rubble. This weekend, Galveston commemorated the storm that killed more than 6,000 — possibly as many as 8,000 to 10,000 — of its citizens.

The Sisters of Charity placed a wreath in memory of St. Mary's Orphanage, where 10 nuns and 90 children died during the Great Storm
  St. Mary's Orphanage, home to 93 children and the 10 nuns who cared for them, sat on a beautiful beach in 1900, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. A pair of large, two-story buildings served as residences, wrapped in spacious porches and surrounded by wide lawns where the children ran and played. When the Great Hurricane hit on Sept. 8, the boys' dormitory — older and weaker — was the first to go, collapsing in the late afternoon and floating away in pieces on the rising floodwaters.

All of the children and nuns were crowded on the second floor of the girls' dormitory when they heard the boys' building crash to pieces. Wind speeds were more than 120 mph, and the storm surge was 15 feet high. As the floodwaters poured in through shattered windows, each of the 10 Sisters used clothesline to tie herself to between six and eight of the smaller children, in the hope no one would be lost. Their efforts were in vain: The girls' dormitory soon collapsed, and nearly all of the nuns and orphans were killed. Only three boys survived, clinging in the water to a treetop until the hurricane died down

 At a small, emotional ceremony Friday morning, a group of nuns — today's Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word — placed a wreath at the waterfront site of the old orphanage. They led the audience in singing "Queen of the Waves," a hymn the nuns sang on the evening of Sept. 8, 1900, to calm the children as the 1900 Storm roared around them.

Galveston artist David Moore created this public sculpture, "Place of Remembrance" to commemorate the 100-year anniversary

Remembering Clara Barton and the Red Cross

Clara Barton, founder and president of the American Red Cross in 1900, gathered a team and traveled by rail from Washington, D.C., to Galveston as soon as she heard the news of the disaster. Dr. Bernadine Healy, president of the Red Cross in 2000, made the same trip Friday — though by plane this time, and under far less tragic circumstances.

.Healy spoke Friday afternoon to a group gathered at the Galveston County Historical Museum. In the audience were a group of 7th and 8th graders from Galveston Catholic School, who are learning disaster preparation skills this fall through a Red Cross program in their classroom.

The Red Cross recently introduced "Masters of Disaster," a disaster-preparedness program that teachers can incorporate into traditional classroom curricula. "We're learning how to be prepared so we'll know what to do if a big hurricane hits," said Carolina Thomas. Her teacher, Doris Falk, explained: "It's so important to be knowledgeable about disasters. We want them to be able to help themselves — and to be good weather predictors."

Red Cross President Dr. Bernadine Healy spoke at the Galveston County Historical Museum on Friday.
 Healy said it took about 36 hours for word of the Great Hurricane to get to Washington. "It those days, we didn't have CNN," she said with a smile. By the time Clara Barton arrived in Galveston, the town — overwhelmed by the thousands of bodies — had already begun to burn funeral pyres in the streets. "Barton described it as utter chaos, like a scene from Dante's Inferno," Healy said. "But she had seen this before. She knew what to do." During the Civil War, Barton had served as a volunteer on the battlefields, tending to the sick and dying soldiers.

When Barton finally left Galveston after nearly three months of nonstop relief work, the city presented her with a special "thank-you" resolution. The original resolution hangs in the Red Cross president's office in Washington, D.C. This weekend, in commemoration of the Great Storm, Healy presented Galveston with a replica.

The Galvestonian Spirit

Much of Texas has struggled in recent weeks with a terrible drought; even some of the usually wet coastal cities announced water-rationing policies last week. But on Friday in Galveston — as if in memory of the deadly floods of a century earlier — it rained. Off and on all day, Galvestonians and visitors attending the Great Storm events all over town had to open umbrellas and head for cover. The island's popular beaches were nearly deserted.

 And so the town decided to move the main commemorative event — the 1900 Storm Centennial Tribute, an evening candlelight ceremony — from the outdoor football stadium to the much smaller high school auditorium. As the ceremony began, the huge room was packed to the point of overflow. Photographers, video cameras and families crowded the aisles; dozens of people were turned away.

"It is hot. We are crowded. Many of us are uncomfortable," said one local official, quieting the crowd from the stage. "But imagine our inconvenience compared to that of 100 years ago tonight."

The candlelight Storm Centennial Tribute featured a slide show of storm images from local archives.

With that, a nearly three-hour ceremony, two years in the making, began. The 1900 Storm Community Chorus sang. The Galveston Symphony Orchestra played. The Oppe Elementary School Honor Choir belted out a song called "Light the Candles All Around the World." A group of high school bagpipers accompanied the crowd in Amazing Grace. Local officials and religious leaders read aloud from first-person accounts of storm survivors.

The theme was clear: Celebrating the strength of Galvestonians — those who survived and rebuilt the city, and those living on the island today.

"We have inherited the spirit of a strong and determined people," said Mike Doherty, chairman of the Great Storm Committee.

Red Cross President Dr. Bernadine Healy spoke of the importance of helping one another during "unfair and inexplicable" disasters. "The human spirit prevailed" after the Great Storm, she said. "We honor those who lost their lives. We also honor the survivors."

One hundred years later, Galveston is a popular beach resort town.
 Many speakers also evoked the fearful power of hurricanes. Texas native Dan Rather, CBS news anchor and keynote speaker, reminded the audience of the great strides made in hurricane prediction technology since September 1900. Hurricanes could not kill so many today, he said, because meteorologists offer "full, clear warnings ahead of time." In addition to "heroic feats of engineering" that resulted in a 15-foot seawall and raised the ground level of the entire island, scientists also began work to advance hurricane forecasting immediately after the Galveston tragedy.

"Their lives were given in part to get us where we stand today," Rather said.

Still, even with Doppler radar and satellite imagery, it is important to remember the destructive strength of these storms, he added. "Hurricanes haunt," he said. "Galveston will never forget what happened here."

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