This week marks the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew and next week is the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Andrew crashed into southern Florida with 175 mile per hour winds, destroyed more than 100,000 homes and caused a quarter of a billion dollars in damage.
Katrina leveled southeastern Louisiana and the Mississippi coast and caused a catastrophic failure of the levee system in New Orleans, flooding 80 percent of the city, some areas with as much as 20 feet of water. Some 1,833 people lost their lives. But as devastating as these storms were the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history was one you’ve probably never heard of, the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900.
The hurricane began innocently enough; on August 27, 1900 a ship in the eastern Caribbean Sea reported an area of “unsettled weather”. The storm passed through the Leeward Islands and on August 30th struck Antigua. On September 3 it made landfall in southwestern Cuba. On September 4 the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington D.C. passed word to the Galveston office that a tropical storm had moved north of Cuba and may be headed in their direction. But with no weather stations located in the Gulf of Mexico there was no precise way of forecasting where the storm was going or even where it was. Weather Bureau forecasters believed the storm would curve back across Florida and head up the mid-Atlantic coast. Cuban forecasters disagreed, and predicted the storm was headed towards Texas. Many forecasters avoided using words like “hurricane” for fear of frightening residents. In Galveston, swells were beginning to pile in from the east but the skies were partly cloudy and very few people evacuated across the bridges to the mainland.
At the time Galveston was the biggest city in Texas, with a population of almost 40,000 people and a bustling port. Yet the entire city stood on a flat, low sandy island, one side of which directly faced the Gulf of Mexico. The island’s highest point was 8.7 feet. Just a few decades earlier the nearby town of Indianola, then the second largest port town in Texas, had been completely obliterated by a series of hurricanes. Galveston residents had proposed a seawall be built to protect the island from storms but in an 1891 article in the Galveston Daily News, Isaac Cline, director of the Galveston Weather Bureau, argued a seawall was unnecessary and declared that it was impossible for a strong hurricane to strike the island. The seawall was never built and development continued unchecked. Even worse, sand dunes facing the Gulf, natural barrier’s against hurricanes, were removed to fill in low areas of the city.
On September 8, the storm struck Galveston. Winds topped 100 miles per hour and a 15 foot storm surge washed over the entire island. The devastation was immense. “About 200 corpses counted from the train,” reported G.L. Vaughan, manager of Houston’s Western Union office, via telegraph. “Large steamship stranded two miles inland. Nothing could be seen of Galveston. Loss of life and property undoubtedly most appalling.” The storm surge had knocked homes right off their foundations and destroyed the bridges that connected the island to the mainland. An estimated 8,000 people lost their lives, most drowned or were crushed by debris. Many survived the storm but remained trapped under wreckage for days and died of exhaustion as rescuers, unable to reach them, could do nothing but listen to their screams.
Burying all the dead bodies was impossible. Initially, corpses were weighted down and buried at sea. But currents washed bodies right back to shore. The dead were then burnt in funeral pyres right where they were found. It took weeks to get rid of all the bodies. Men assigned the grueling task of collecting and burning bodies were given free whiskey.
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Because telegraph wires were put out by the storm there is little firsthand testimony of what actually happened in the city, and the horrors were so great that many survivors refused to talk. “The story of Galveston’s tragedy can never be written,” wrote a local newspaper reporter the week after the storm. “Perhaps it were best that it should be so, for the horror and anguish of those fatal and fateful hours were mercifully lost in the screaming tempest and buried forever beneath the raging billows… Only God knows, and for the rest let it remain forever in the boundlessness of His omniscience.”