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Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Galveston Hurricane, September, 1900

With Hurricane Rita bearing down on the coast of Texas as I record this, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the deadliest natural disaster to ever strike the United States. The hurricane actually came ashore on September 8th in the afternoon, so we're going to have to depart a little bit from our tradition of covering just the events of today.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Galveston was considered the “New York of the South”. The city had a population of 42,000 people and owed its economic success to the natural harbor of Galveston Bay. The entire area was essentially flat and the city itself sat atop a giant sandbar. Hurricanes and tropical storms had battered the city in the past and had even destroyed other towns along the Texas coast, but many of the citizens of Galveston believed that future storms could be no worse than the storms they had faced in the past.

In 1900, weather forecasting was a crude science. While today we know about hurricanes while they are still in their infancy off the coast of Africa. One hundred years ago, the only warning that residents had of an approaching storm was from ships that may have passed near or through the storm. And since wireless communication was still rare, most ships were not able to pass on their weather information until they reached their destination. Thus, the hurricane that would destroy Galveston was not spotted until it was near the Windward Islands. At that point, and even as the storm passed over Cuba, it was not yet a hurricane but a tropical storm.

On September 4th, the weather station at Galveston began to receive warnings about a potential hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. By the 7th, large swells were crashing on nearby beaches but few people chose to leave their homes. By the time the last train left the city on the morning of the 8th, part of the tracks were washed out. By that afternoon, the city was flooded.

The highest wind speed actually recorded during the storm was a little over 100MPH, but the Weather Bureau's anemometer was destroyed soon after. It was later estimated that the winds were over 120MPH, making the hurricane a Category 4 storm by modern standards. The barometric pressure recorded during this time was so low that it was discarded as inaccurate.

By Sunday morning, the storm was passed Galveston and was headed over the mid-western part of the United States. The city was destroyed. Nearly 4,000 homes had been demolished and an estimated 8,000 people lost their lives. Since all forms of communication had been knocked out, it was not until the next day that people reached the mainland and cabled the governor of Texas and President McKinley.

Galveston was rebuilt as a testament to modern engineering. A seawall that would eventually be 10 miles long was built and the entire city was raised by as much as 17 feet, meaning that every building had to be either raised to that height or destroyed. Another storm in 1915 killed over 250 people, but was not nearly as devastating as it would have been had not the lessons of 1900 been heeded.

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