September 8, 1900 seemed like a fairly normal day in the Texas town of Galveston. Located on a barrier island 30 miles long and several miles wide, Galveston was a booming commercial port and posted close to 40,000 residents making it the largest city in Texas. That morning’s high tide had brought flooding, but this was not unusual for a town that was at the highest point only 8.7 feet above sea level. There were blue skies and although residents knew their was a storm coming, they didn’t think it was going to be that bad. There had been storms since the town’s founding in 1838 and the town had always survived. They had never been so wrong.
The U.S. Weather Bureau had been tracking the incoming hurricane since August 30, but thought it would continue to track to the northeast from Key West. However, the hurricane threw them a curveball and veered west towards Texas. The hurricane flags were ordered to be flown by Galveston Weather Station Chief Isaac M. Cline on September 7 and said later personally warned the residents to get to higher ground on the morning of September 8. No one much paid attention. Unless they left the island, it would not have mattered anyway. There are no other eyewitnesses to his warning to those on the beach, and Erik Larson argues in his book Isaac’s Storm that this was fiction.
Storm clouds began to gather mid morning and the wind began to pick up. The brunt of the storm hit Galveston mid afternoon. From the Galveston Island Weather Station, Isaac Cline and his brother weathered the storm and sent back reports as long as the telegraph wires held. The barometer fell rapidly during the afternoon. A barometric pressure reading of 28.55 inches or almost 967 mb was recorded in Galveston, about from where the eye of the storm is best estimated to have passed. The lowest central pressure for the hurricane was estimated to be 931 mb. Before blowing away in the late afternoon, the anemometer recorded average wind speeds of 84 miles per hour and gusts up to 100 miles per hour. After this, the wind speeds were just a guess, but Cline estimated the strongest winds that hit the island were about 120 miles per hour. However, there are eyewitness reports of slate, timbers and bricks being blown almost horizontally through the air, which would indicate a higher wind speed. Even “storm-proof” brick buildings fell under the onslaught. The collapsing buildings caught and held victims under water. Others were cut down by wave-tossed or wind-blown debris.
The rain gage held steady until about 2:30, when it was blown down so known is quite sure how much rain fell. A fifteen and a half foot storm surge hit the island, which left no part of it above water. This wall of water swept over the island and carried away homes and buildings and pushed a wall of debris over t
wo stories high. Ironically, the wall of debris protected the few remaining buildings from collapsing. The Cline family home was destroyed by a trolley car which broke from its moorings and battered against the house. There was no family on the island that escaped property damage or injury.
In his memoir, Cline wrote: “The battle for our lives, against the elements and the terrific hurricane winds and storm-tossed wreckage, lasted from 8 p.m. until near midnight. This struggle to live continued through one of the darkest of nights with only an occasional flash of lightning which revealed the terrible carnage about us.” Three of his daughters were saved, but his wife met her end with so many others that night.
When the sun rose the next morning, Galveston was devastated. Buildings were destroyed, bodies were everywhere. At first they were sent to the mainland for burial, but there were so many that eventually they just started lighting pyres and burning them. A final list of 4,263 dead was published in the Galveston News in early October, but many bodies were never identified. The best estimates give the number of dead as about 6,000 people in the city, while another 4,000-6,000 died elsewhere on the island and on the nearby mainland. Besides the human toll, the value of damaged property was estimated at $30 million, including 3,600 homes destroyed. The wagon bridge had washed away, leaving railroads the only transportation to the mainland. The sixteen ships anchored in the harbor at the time of the storm also suffered extensive damage.
Milton Elford was a young man who was the sole survivor of his family after the storm. He describes their plight in a letter to his brother,
“We left our house about 4 o’clock thinking we would be safer in a larger house, not dreaming that even that house would be washed away. We went across the street to a fine large house, built on a brick foundation high off the ground. About 5 it grew worse and began to break up the fence, and the wreckage of other houses was coming against us.
We had arranged that if the house showed signs of breaking up, I would take the lead and Pa would come next, with Dwight and Ma next. In this way I could make a safe place to walk, as we would have to depend on floating debris for rafts.
There were about fifteen or sixteen in the house besides ourselves. They were confident the house would stand anything; if not for that we would probably have left on rafts before the house went down. We all gathered in one room; all at once the house went from its foundation and the water came in waist-deep, and we all made a break for the door, but could not get it open. We then smashed out the window and I led the way.
I had only got part way out when the house fell on us. I was hit on the head with something and it knocked me out and into the water head first. I do not know how long I was down, as I must have been stunned. I came up and got hold of some wreckage on the other side of the house. I could see one man on some wreckage to my left and another on my right. I went back to the door that we could not open. It was broke in, and I could go part way in, as one side of the ceiling was not within four or five feet, I think, of water. There was not a thing in sight.
I went back and got on the other side but no one ever came up that I could see. We must all have gone down the same time, but I cannot tell what they did not come up.
I then started to leave by partly running and swimming from one lot of debris to another. The street was full of tops and sides of houses and the air was full of flying boards. I think I gained about a block on the debris in this way, and got in the shelter of some buildings, but they were fast going down, and I was afraid of getting buried.
Just then, the part I was on started down the street, and I stuck my head and shoulders in an old tool chest that was lying in the debris that I was on. I could hardly hold this down on its side from being blown away, but that is what saved my life again.
When the water went down about 3 a.m., I was about five blocks from where I started. My head was bruised and legs and hands cut a little, which I did not find until Monday and then I could hardly get my hat on.
…As soon as it was light enough, I went back to the location of the house, and not a sign of it could be found and not a sign any house within two blocks, where before there was scarcely a vacant lot.
I then went to the city hall to see the chief of police, to get some help to recover the corpses, thinking, I guess, that I was the only one in that fix.
The fireman and others started before noon to bring in corpses; they brought them in in wagon loads of about a dozen at a time, laid them down in rows to be identified, and the next day they were badly decomposed, and were loaded on boats and taken to sea only to wash back on the beach. They then started to bury them wherever they were found but yesterday (Wednesday) the corpses were ordered burned. Men started removing the debris and burning it, and when they came upon a corpse it is just thrown on the pile.“
Donations poured in from around the country. Clara Barton, who by this time was 78 years old, organized a relief effort by the Red Cross and they arrived a week later on September 17. The Red Cross helped find lumber for new buildings and started an orphanage for all children left orphans by the storm. All told donations amounted to about $1.25 million. To prevent such a disaster from happening again, the entire city of Galveston was raised 17 feet by pumping sand from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Part of this work raising 2,146 buildings, streetcar tracks, fire hydrants, gas lines and water pipes. Any one who had any trees or plants they wanted saved were required to remove them themselves. More than 2,100 buildings were raised by jackscrews. The largest building moved was a 3,000 ton church. A seawall was also built to protect the center of the city from any storm surges.
The new defenses were put to the test when a hurricane hit Galveston in 1915. The loss of life was much less and the seawall held back the storm surge. However, it was too late. Galveston never regained its preeminence as a port. The storm scared away investors who went to the nearby port of Houston instead.
Sources available on request