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House in Galveston on Avenue N, October 15, 1900

The Deadliest Disaster in American History

On September 8, 1900, the coastal city of Galveston, Texas was hit by a hurricane like none that the U.S. has ever experienced before or since. Winds of 120 mph slammed the city with flying debris that cut through homes like shrapnel. Waves crashed onto the streets, leaving the city 15 feet underwater at one point. And, worst of all, virtually nobody had the foresight to evacuate.

Galvestonians had experienced ocean flood waters from storms before but hadn’t ever done much more than board up windows and build beach houses up off the ground as prevention. This lack of preparation would cost them dearly.

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in modern U.S. history, leaving behind an estimated death toll of 8,000-12,000 people.

The actual death toll will never be known because the magnitude of the disaster far exceeded the ability to accurately count and identify bodies. It is very likely that many of the dead were washed out to sea. Nevertheless, it was the deadliest natural disaster in America?s history.

The trouble began on Friday, September 7, when Galveston was issued a storm warning by the central office of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service). A single-paragraph story with a headline that read “Storm in the Gulf” appeared in the following day’s newspaper but did little to cause the citizens much concern.

However, Isaac M. Cline, a Weather Bureau official, drove his horse-drawn buggy through Galveston’s neighbourhoods, urging people to seek shelter. Even Cline didn’t believe there was cause for serious concern, though, writing in 1891?that “it would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.” (It should be noted that Cline survived the storm, but of course, those words would haunt him dearly.)

But as the tides began to rise and the winds came, Galveston was punished with unmerciful hurricane winds that left sheer chaos in their wake.

Missed.. A deaf looter at Galveston escapes temporarily a deserved fate ? A ?deaf? thief removing a ring from the hand of a dead victim of a hurricane and flood, Galveston, Texas.

Wrecked Segregated High School building.

Twisted house.

The only remaining house near the beach for miles, Galveston, Texas.

When they awoke on the morning of September 8, 1900, the 38,000 residents of Galveston, were unaware that this day would be their city’s last. One hundred and seventeen years ago?Isaac?s Storm?went ashore on Galveston Island on a Saturday night, and was the worst natural catastrophe in American History and it arrived in its fury without any warning. The storm propelled a fifteen-foot surge of water before it; easily swamping the 8.7-foot-high island that Galveston called home. Without any respect for persons or property, it nearly scraped the people off their tenuously held sand bar and would change the island forever. The unexpected heroes ? the mother superior at the Ursuline Academy who tolled the bell and guided 1,500 people to the safety of its walls, the nuns at the orphanage who tied ten children apiece to themselves and were swept out to sea when their frame buildings on the beach washed away and the monsignor, who was also an army chaplain, who took over the relief the morning after the storm hit and kept the island in order until help arrived are only three of the stories.

There are hundreds of other stories but the storm was of such magnitude and so profoundly affected people that it was a singular catastrophe ? and most who have been through such an event really don?t talk about it. It has either strengthened their faith to the point that they know it is not something to share with others or they know they have been tried and found wanting and are as afraid to talk about it as they were to experience it. Probably for most it is equal parts of both. This was before the time when every experience had to be transformed into a public emotional emetic when people were wise enough to know that a little secret knowledge of themselves was healthy for themselves and the people around them.

Floating wreckage near Texas City ? typical scene for miles along the water front.

Carrying out bodies just removed from the wreckage, Galveston.

St. Lucas Terrace – 80 bodies were found in the ruins after this photograph was made.

U.S. Weather Bureau forecasters were aware of the Galveston hurricane as early as August 30. By the time the storm passed over Cuba (September 4) and reached a position just northwest of Key West (September 6), forecasters were convinced the storm would continue to track to the northeast. But, once in the Gulf of Mexico, the system began to strengthen and veer westward ? on a collision course with the Texas coast. Since wireless ship-to-shore communications were not yet available, there was no way to know just when and where the hurricane would strike. While the usual signs associated with the approach of a hurricane were still not in evidence, Galveston Weather Station Chief Isaac M. Cline was becoming increasingly suspicious of the weather. On September 7, Cline ordered hurricane warning flags to be flown.

In a special report on the hurricane, published in the Monthly Weather Review, Cline later noted:

?A heavy swell from the southeast made its appearance in the Gulf of Mexico during the afternoon of the 7th. The swell continued during the night without diminishing, and the tide rose to an unusual height when it is considered that the wind was from the north and northwest??

The effectiveness of community efforts to cope with a hurricane depends upon an interactive process involving technical procedures for tracking and warning, societal issues including public response to warnings, and government-sponsored preparedness and safety measures.

The apathy on the Island at midday was appalling. Keep in mind this was only about eight hours before the arrival of the eye of a Category-4 hurricane. Most people felt the squalls would soon pass as they always had in the past. A prime example of the apathy was the action of one of the passengers on Houston Train 2 who waded in waist deep water to keep a luncheon appointment. When he arrived at the office to meet his clients, he was told they had already departed for lunch. He then re-scheduled an appointment for 3 pm and waded back to the terminal to wait for the meeting. Ironically, some of this apathy may have developed from public statements by Isaac Monroe Cline, including a local newspaper article he published in 1891. As a meteorologist in charge of the Galveston Weather Bureau until 1901, they were statements he lived to regret when the Great Hurricane demolished Galveston in 1900. That they were conclusions of a broadly educated, erudite scientist, intellectual, and revered citizen of Galveston was sufficient for his constituents to consider his published accounts to be credible. Unfortunately, the statements were at best misleading. His statements and assertions, shared with various groups in Galveston were:

West Indies hurricanes are not a problem for Texas because they always recurve to the north before reaching the Western Gulf of Mexico.

Isaac was aware of the major hurricanes in 1875 and 1886 that destroyed Indianola. He felt these were freak accidents. Indianola was located on the south shore of Matagorda Bay and was the second biggest seaport in Texas in the mid-1800s before being destroyed.

Shallow water offshore from Galveston will protect the island from hurricane waves.

Just the opposite is true. Forecasters at the turn of the century did not understand the difference between wind waves generated by the hurricane and the storm surge. We now know the height of the storm surge is inversely related to the depth of the water and shallow water makes Galveston Island more vulnerable to the storm surge.

Buildings can be constructed to survive a hurricane.

Isaac had a chance to test this hypothesis when he rebuilt his home after it had been destroyed by fire in 1896. As we will see, the belief that his house was safe was, in part, responsible for the death of his wife.

Men work to dig a body that was found buried in the muddy debris from the storm’s wrath. Library of Congress

Relief party working at Ave P and Tremont St.

A young boy manages a smile while sitting on the rubble of yet another building destroyed by the Galveston Hurricane’s winds. He told the photographer, ? I?m glad I?m living.? Wikimedia Commons

Dr Isaac Cline was a man of impeccable character and public credibility, holding advanced degrees in both physical and medical science. He was a notable pioneer in tropical meteorology with numerous authoritative publications on hurricanes. In 1901 he was appointed Meteorologist in charge of the Weather Bureau office at New Orleans and became one of the most highly regarded forecasters of his time. However, we will never know for sure whether his newspaper article in 1891 was at least partially responsible for the apathy. The apathy in Galveston on September 8th came to an abrupt halt at Ritter?s Caf? during the noon hour. Someone noticed there were thirteen men having lunch. They all had a big laugh. Shortly thereafter a gust of wind lifted the roof from the two-story building and the second floor came crashing down into the restaurant killing five immediately and seriously injuring another five. They sent one of the waiters for help, and he drowned in the flooded street.

A family stands around the remains of their home, destroyed by the storm. Bettmann/Getty Images

Men use ropes to pull away the debris of houses in order to look for bodies. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

A dredge boat was found three miles from the sea, pushed there by the hurricane’s force. One of John Young?s fleet for deepening the channel while gathering mud shell for the paving business. Young & Company would be devastated by the storm and the Young family would lose their new home. The firm was operating again by the 1st of November and their new home would be built on the foundations of their old one by the following September. Local banks made $10,000,000 available in grants and Galveston rebuilt ? not for the first time and certainly not for the last time! Wikimedia Commons

Men walk with a wagon hauling off dead bodies in the muddy streets of a demolished Galveston. Library of Congress

A family combs through the wreckage, looking for any valuables that might have survived the storm. Wikimedia Commons

News of this disaster quickly spread across the Island and people panicked. Hundreds converged on the posh Tremont Hotel. At the height of the storm, water covered the plush lobby and people retreated to the upper floors. It is estimated over a thousand people survived the hurricane in the Tremont. On the east end of the Island, a tragedy was developing at the three-story Lucas Terrace Apartment. The apartment complex was surrounded by one-story, single family homes. Before noon, rising water was entering the homes, and residents were forced to seek higher ground. Many sought refuge in the second and third floors of the Lucas Terrace Apartment. Early in the afternoon, the water was so deep, it was impossible to leave the area. The people in the apartment were trapped. By mid-afternoon, huge timbers from a government construction project on the east end of the Island began battering the Lucas Terrace. One by one the 64 rooms in the apartment were destroyed. Only one room survived with its 22 occupants. Several hundred people probably died in this one apartment building. The Saint Mary Orphanage was located on the beach three miles to the west of town.

Two buildings housed 93 children, ages two to 13, with a staff of ten nuns. Boys occupied the older building located to the east; the new building to the west was reserved for girls. Water crested the sand dunes before noon, and the boys were moved to the newer stronger building with the girls. The older building collapsed early in the afternoon, and when the newer building with all the children began breaking apart, the nuns took pieces of clothesline and tied six to eight children to each nun. This was a deadly decision because, when one or two of the children went down, it dragged everyone else down. The only survivors were three thirteen-year-old boys who were not tied to others. They spent the night clinging to a tree that had been uprooted. Ninety children and all ten of the nuns died.

Galveston lost all contact with the outside world shortly after 3:30 pm when the last communication line to the mainland was severed. Joseph Cline, Isaac?s brother, worked for Isaac in the Weather Bureau office. Since there was no longer any way to forward weather reports to Weather Bureau headquarters in Washington, Joseph decided to leave the office and check on Isaac?s family. He waded in chest deep water to reach Isaac?s home. Joseph urged Isaac to evacuate and take the family to the weather office, but Isaac insisted they stay, confident that his house was safe. He was also concerned his sick and pregnant wife could not survive the trip. In addition to Isaac?s family, many other people had sought refuge in the Cline house.

So many died that corpses were piled onto carts for burial at sea.

The headline from the Houston Daily Post reporting the carnage. The body count would later rise to a much higher number than originally reported. University Of North Texas Library

With the wind and debris swirling around them, the citizens of Galveston waded through the rapidly rising floodwaters, seeking protection in the strongest-looking homes and structures they could find. One of these structures was Cline?s own house, where his wife, three daughters, brother, and about 50 neighbours took refuge from the maelstrom.The house was a solid structure and Cline believed it might have survived the storm?s fury if a railroad trestle had not been ripped free and borne along by the wind and waves.

Shortly after 6 pm, rising water forced everyone in Isaac?s home to the second floor. One by one houses around them collapsed until the Cline home was the only one standing. Between 7 and 8 pm the Cline house shuddered, lifted off its foundation and gradually turned over. Joseph grabbed two of Isaac?s daughters and leapt through the front window. Isaac, his wife, and youngest daughter were trapped inside the house.

Isaac was knocked unconscious and does not know how he got out of the house. When he regained consciousness, lightning flashes revealed a small child nearby. He rescued her from the water and was delighted to find that the child was his youngest daughter. Moments later they made contact with Joseph and the other two daughters. The Clines floated on debris for around eight hours before being deposited on a pile of broken homes four blocks from the original location of the Cline home. Isaac?s wife was not located until September 30th when a demolition gang uncovered a body in a pile of rubble that was believed to be part of the Cline home. The body was identified by the wedding ring.

A man stands in front of Ursuline Academy, Galveston’s school for African-American students. Wikimedia Commons

Years later, Isaac said, ?We probably would have weathered the storm, but for the trestle.? For a nickel, you could take a trolley ride from downtown to the beach. Several hundred feet of the trolley track was over the water. The hurricane dislodged the track and the supporting trestle. As the trestle moved inland, it gathered wreckage, and the mass of broken debris acted like a giant bulldozer knocking down everything in its path. It was the trestle that finally destroyed Isaac?s home.

As the citizens of Galveston began to come to grips with the initial shock and horror surrounding them, they realized the most immediate task was to find a way to deal with the massive carnage.

Words cannot begin to describe the horrendous conditions that the survivors faced. Initially, there were the corpses to contend with: both human and animal.

Early Monday there was an attempt to identify and bury the dead humans, at least. But this effort was quickly abandoned when city officials realized the number of bodies greatly exceeded their capabilities. A second plan, initiated Monday afternoon, called for bodies to be buried at sea. The bodies, with weights attached, were to be transported out into the Gulf of Mexico on barges. City officials found, however, that the only way they could entice men to work on this task was to offer them free whiskey. The offer drew men to the job, but they soon became drunk and incapable of attaching the weights properly. Tuesday morning hundreds of bodies washed back ashore. This left one alternative: the bodies had to be burned. For weeks, rising plumes of smoke could be spotted on the Island and the air was filled with the stench of burning flesh.

Many of those who survived would carry the memories and replay the nightmare of that terrible night for the rest of their lives.

At the age of 19, Galveston?s Emma Bernie Beal was one of those who bore witness to the burning ? an image that would haunt her dreams for years:

?I stood out there and watched them burn some bodies. It was right across the street, on the corner of 37th and P. I recall this one body, the arm went up like that and I screamed. I never will forget that. I just saw the hand go up. I?d stand there and watch them burn the bodies and then I?d have nightmares and scream and holler. Oh, it was a terrible thing. There?s something crazy about you when you watch anything like that.?

A collection of survivors? letters, memoirs, and oral histories have been archived in Galveston?s Rosenberg Library. Some of the more memorable accounts are captured in a publication entitled, ?Through a Night of Horrors: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm.?

One of the ?voices? was that of travelling salesman Charles Law, who took shelter in the city?s sturdy Tremont Hotel. Excerpts from a letter to his wife describe his ordeal:

?I have passed through the most trying, horrible thing in my life. God knows that on Saturday night I had given up all hopes of ever seeing the light of day, and my prayers were on my lips asking God to take care of you and the little darling there at home, seemed that I would be floating with the thousand poor dead bodies out in the streets at any moment.

On Sunday morning, after the storm was all over, I went out into the streets and the most horrible sights that you can ever imagine. I gazed upon dead bodies lying here and there. The houses all blown to pieces; women, men and children all walking the streets in a weak condition with bleeding heads and bodies and feet all torn to pieces with glass where they had been treading through the debris of fallen buildings. 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.?

In what has frequently been described as the city?s finest hour, the citizens of Galveston displayed exceptional resiliency and determination. They decided to rebuild and, in so doing, achieved a remarkable feat of civil engineering. The two-fold project called for raising the grade of the entire city and building a seawall to help protect it.

Horses pull a body wagon stacked with the dead. They would eventually be loaded onto a barge for burial at sea. Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

A view of the sea wall that was built after the hurricane to protect the city from future disaster. When it was all over, the wrath of the Galveston Hurricane changed the city’s stance on hurricane preparation, causing officials to build a 17-foot sea wall two years later in order to break storm swells.1902. U.S. Census Bureau

Isaac Monroe Cline in his later years, at a WPA Art show in New Orleans, 1941.

Isaac Monroe Cline (October 13, 1861 ? August 3, 1955) was the chief meteorologist at the Galveston, Texas office of the U.S. Weather Bureau from 1889 to 1901. In that role, he became a central figure in the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900. In March 1889, a Texas section of the Weather Bureau was being established, and Cline was sent to Galveston to organize and oversee it. Cline stayed with the office when it became part of the U.S. Weather Bureau in the 1891 transfer from the Signal Corps to the Department of Agriculture.

Cline was the second meteorologist to provide reliable forecasts of freezing weather. He also provided some of the first available flood warnings on the Colorado and Brazos rivers. However, in 1891, he wrote an article in the Galveston Daily News in which he gave his official meteorological opinion that the thought of a hurricane ever doing any serious harm to Galveston was “a crazy idea.? Many residents had called for a seawall to protect the city, but Cline’s statement helped to prevent its construction.

He was proven tragically wrong on September 8, 1900, when the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 hit the island. Cline’s wife, Cora, who was pregnant with their fourth child at the time, was one of those who perished in the storm. Cline was nearly drowned, but he managed to survive, as well as to save his youngest daughter, six-year-old Esther Bellew. Cline’s brother, Joseph, saved Isaac’s other two daughters, 12-year-old Allie May and 11-year-old Rosemary.

In his autobiography, Isaac Cline claimed that he had taken it upon himself to travel along the beach and other low-lying areas warning people personally of the storm’s approach. It is known that around noon on September 8, he did breach Weather Bureau protocol by making a unilateral decision to issue a hurricane warning without first securing authorization from the Bureau’s central office in Washington, D.C. Cline estimated that thousands of lives were saved because of his decision not to wait for approval. However, no eyewitnesses reported seeing Cline personally warning people along the beach.

Shortly before the destruction of Galveston, the Weather Bureau began establishing regional forecasting centres. The centre for the Gulf Coast was initially located in Galveston, with Isaac Cline as chief forecaster; his brother Joseph, a fellow meteorologist, worked for him there. In 1901, the centre was moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, and Isaac Cline moved with it. There he developed a stellar reputation over the years, successfully forecasting significant levels of flooding in 1912, 1915 and 1927. In 1927, he published the book Tropical Cyclones, a collection of his research. He was also the chief meteorologist in New Orleans during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In 1934, by that time well respected and highly admired in New Orleans, Cline received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University.

Cline retired from the Weather Bureau in 1935, remained in New Orleans, and indulged his longtime interest in art, both by painting and by opening an art shop.

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