Galveston Hurricane Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The category 4 hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. The low-lying barrier island was battered by 120-mile-per-hour winds that killed several thousand people and destroyed two-thirds of Galveston’s buildings, including more than thirty-six hundred homes.

Summary of Event

In 1900, Galveston was a vibrant city of thirty-seven thousand people. Located at the eastern end of a thirty-mile-long barrier island, the area’s cotton production made Galveston the third-busiest commercial port in the United States and one of the wealthiest cities in the state of Texas. With an opera house and medical college, Galveston also could boast of being the first in Texas to have telephone Telephone and electrical service. The city’s prestige was evident in ornately designed office buildings and residential areas echoing Greek Revival and Romanesque architectural styles. Galveston’s streets, however, built over sand, were only four to seven feet above sea level. The city was also relatively isolated from the mainland. One wagon bridge and three wooden railroad trestles provided links to the mainland two miles away. Galveston hurricane (1900) Cline, Isaac M. Hurricanes;Galveston Texas;Galveston hurricane [kw]Galveston Hurricane (Sept. 8, 1900) [kw]Hurricane, Galveston (Sept. 8, 1900) Galveston hurricane (1900) Cline, Isaac M. Hurricanes;Galveston Texas;Galveston hurricane [g]Central America and the Caribbean;Sept. 8, 1900: Galveston Hurricane[6530] [g]United States;Sept. 8, 1900: Galveston Hurricane[6530] [c]Disasters;Sept. 8, 1900: Galveston Hurricane[6530] [c]Natural disasters;Sept. 8, 1900: Galveston Hurricane[6530] [c]Environment and ecology;Sept. 8, 1900: Galveston Hurricane[6530] Barton, Clara

Most adult Galvestonians had lived through hurricanes and viewed them as inconveniences rather than serious threats. Hurricanes had never severely damaged the island, so many believed that natural defenses protected the city from storms. However, after a powerful hurricane in 1886 destroyed the nearby port town of Indianola, some residents called for construction of a seawall to provide a storm barrier. Despite frequent discussion the wall was not constructed. Ironically, developers increased the city’s vulnerability to waves and storm surge by removing coastal vegetation and moving sand from beach dunes to fill low-lying areas.

Typical wreckage from the Galveston Hurricane. The large building at the left is the high school for black students.

(Library of Congress)

On August 27, 1900, an unnamed tropical depression began forming in the equatorial mid-Atlantic. Gaining energy, the storm moved westward through the Greater Antilles causing damage on the island of Jamaica Jamaica . First word of the storm came on Tuesday, September 4, when the U.S. Weather Bureau Weather Bureau, U.S. received cables from ships encountering rough seas and high winds off the coast of Cuba. Cuba;and Galveston hurricane[Galveston hurricane] Passing Key West, Florida, on September 6, the storm intensified, drawing energy from unusually high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. Isaac M. Cline, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau’s Galveston Station, had been monitoring the situation. On September 7, he placed Galveston under a storm warning. A brief story appeared that day in the Galveston News, noting a disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico but offering few details. As the afternoon wore on, ocean swells began to intensify. A few sightseers from Houston came to watch large waves pounding the shoreline.

The morning of September 8 began with a pleasant autumn breeze. Few seemed alarmed that seawater had begun inundating homes near the waterfront. Such flooding Floods;and Galveston hurricane[Galveston hurricane] , known as overflow, was relatively common in Galveston. For most residents nothing about the morning’s weather suggested an approaching storm. Seeing that few people had taken the storm warning seriously, Cline drove a horse-drawn buggy along the waterfront urging residents within three blocks of the ocean to seek higher ground. By noon, wind speeds had increased and rain began to fall.

Despite signs of the approaching storm, few people evacuated to the mainland. As water levels rose residents moved to the upper stories of buildings or to higher ground near the city’s center. At 3:30 that afternoon, Cline drafted a message to the Weather Bureau Weather Bureau, U.S. office in Washington, D.C., advising that a great loss of life was imminent and requesting immediate assistance. Wading through waist-deep water, he arrived at the Western Union office only to find that telegraph lines had been knocked out by the storm.

By 4 p.m., winds increased to hurricane force. Breaking free from its moorings, a steamship slammed into all four bridges to the mainland, preventing an evacuation of the island. Buildings near the shoreline were the first to be wiped away by the wind and the rising storm surge. People attempting to move away from beach areas to higher ground were struck by flying wood and masonry.

At 6:30, a large wave moved ashore in advance of the hurricane’s eye, causing a sudden four-foot surge. Survivors clung to rooftops, the tops of trees, or floating debris. Huddled together, some found shelter on the upper floors of large mansions and other buildings, such as the Tremont Hotel, in the center of the city. More than four hundred people crowded into City Hall. About a half-hour later, wind speeds reached 120 miles per hour. Water that now covered the entire island reached its peak depth within a few hours. By 11 p.m., the worst of the storm had passed and the water level started to subside within most parts of the city.

During the early hours of Sunday morning, the winds began to subside. As the sun came up the storm’s catastrophic devastation was evident. The tremendous force of the wind, coupled with the storm surge, had pushed buildings off their foundations. Two-thirds of the city’s structures had been razed, including thirty-six hundred homes. Among buildings destroyed was St. Mary’s Orphanage, where ten Catholic nuns and ninety children perished; a few scattered bricks were all that remained of the building. Within a few hours, Galveston had been transformed from a wealthy vacation destination to a ruined landscape of uprooted trees, broken timbers, and buckled sidewalks.

Because bridges and telegraph lines were damaged, word of the devastation had not reached the mainland. Departing on Sunday, volunteers carrying messages to the governor of Texas and the president of the United States navigated a twenty-foot steam launch ten miles across Galveston Bay to Texas City on the mainland. The messages were not received until Monday, September 10.

Rescue workers arriving from Houston by train and ship were stunned by the carnage. The dead were scattered everywhere among the rubble of homes and businesses. An initial estimate of five hundred killed was soon determined to be too low, as the search revealed more victims, many battered beyond recognition. On Sunday morning, Galveston’s mayor held an emergency town meeting. Because there was no functional city government, an ad hoc central relief committee was appointed and martial law implemented to stop looting.

Every able-bodied man was required to participate in the cleanup, which was made even more miserable by heat, humidity, and the unbearable stench. Citizen squads worked to dispose of bodies by loading them onto barges to be dumped into the gulf. This process had to be stopped when it was discovered that corpses were floating back to shore. Unable to bury the large number of victims, workers had to burn the bodies in funeral pyres. Survivors received emergency shelter in army tents and makeshift buildings constructed from salvageable timber. Seventy-eight-year-old Clara Barton Barton, Clara , founder of the American Red Cross Red Cross , was among those who traveled to Galveston to help survivors. Within a week after the storm, telegraph and water services had been restored to portions of the city.

Significance

Calls to rebuild the city began soon after the storm. In an effort to avoid a repeat of the disaster, city leaders developed plans to build a seawall and raise the island’s elevation by seventeen feet. The first section of the wall was completed in 1904, and subsequent sections were constructed during the next fifty-five years, eventually extending the wall’s length to ten miles. Sixteen million cubic yards of sand were dredged from Galveston’s ship channel to provide fill for raising the city’s elevation. Gas, water, and sewer pipes along with streetcar lines, houses, and other buildings were lifted up. An all-weather bridge to the mainland was constructed to replace the wagon bridge destroyed by the storm.

Although several hurricanes have struck the United States with greater intensity or have been more costly, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, no hurricane has been more deadly than the 1900 storm in Galveston. The number of persons killed by the Galveston hurricane was greater than the combined death tolls of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire, Chicago Fire (1871) the 1889 Johnstown flood Johnstown flood (1889) , and the 1906 San Francisco Earthquakes;San Francisco earthquake. Galveston’s low-lying topography and lack of barriers to wind and rising water contributed to the magnitude of devastation. However, the complacency of island residents toward the impending danger was also a major factor in the high death toll.

A series of measures, including the construction of a seawall, were implemented after the storm to prevent similar disasters. Galveston saw another hurricane in 1915, which had been comparable in strength to the 1900 hurricane. Although 275 persons were killed, the seawall and other measures were credited with preventing the death toll from being substantially higher. In the years after the 1900 storm, scientific weather forecasting and radio Radio;and weather forecasting[Weather forecasting] communications with ships have contributed to more accurate predictions of hurricane magnitudes and movements.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cartwright, Gary. Galveston: A History of the Island. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1998. Relates the story of Galveston’s rise as a commercial center, the impact of the 1900 hurricane, and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Galveston and Texas History Center, Rosenberg Library. 1900 storm exhibit. Available at http://www .gthcenter.org/. A collection of eyewitness accounts of the 1900 Galveston hurricane in letters, documents, and photographs. Accessed February 11, 2006.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, Nathan, ed. Story of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. Gretna, La.: Pelican, 2000. A series of firsthand accounts of the Galveston hurricane.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Larson, Erik. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. New York: Crown, 1999. The personal story of the Galveston hurricane as told by Isaac M. Cline, Galveston’s chief meteorologist.

Great Chicago Fire

Johnstown Flood

Related Article in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Clara Barton. Galveston hurricane (1900) Cline, Isaac M. Hurricanes;Galveston Texas;Galveston hurricane

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