12,000 Gone in Galveston: America’s Deadliest Storm

12,000 Gone in Galveston: America’s Deadliest Storm

Disasters, like politics, are local. So, ask about the baddest storm and chances are you’ll hear “Sandy” in the mid-Atlantic, “Katrina” in New Orleans, “Camille” in Mississippi, and “Andrew” in Florida. But the truth is this: America’s deadliest storm hit 50 years before storms wore official name tags. So—like the devil—this storm is summoned by many a moniker: “The Galveston Hurricane of 1900,” “The Galveston Flood,” and, in telling simplicity, “The Storm.”

The first warning had come from the New Orleans Weather Bureau the day before. But, in the minds of locals, it would be just another storm. Nothing to worry about, especially given that the city—one of the richest in America at the time—was impenetrable to hurricanes. Chief Meteorologist Isaac Cline had said so right there in the Galveston Daily News. It mattered not that just 25 years before a hurricane had flattened the nearby port town of Indianola, which had never recovered. Anyway, without ship-to-shore communications, no one knew where it would land or that it would be such a mighty storm.

Galveston was in its heyday. It was the largest and most important city in Texas and the second richest urban area in the country (based on per capita income). The seaport was only second to New York City in wheat exports and it was moving more cotton than the Port of New Orleans. Galveston’s Strand District was known as the “Wall Street of the South.” And the city led Texas with the most millionaires, most theaters, grandest mansions, and many firsts in the state: telephone, electric lights, grand piano, paved streets with sidewalks and gas streetlights, and train service to all U.S. destinations. Tourists poured in to experience the healing warmth of the bay. And, the city’s population had grown by 30% in the last 10 years. More importantly, Galveston claimed more saloons that New Orleans. “The Queen City of the Gulf” was on top.

So, on the morning of September 8, 1900, residents and tourists enjoyed the breeze that cut the summer heat while their children played in the rare surf. They didn’t know the wind and the storm surge were working against one another. Then the rains came. By 3 p.m., a great wall of water grew on the horizon. Chickens squawked into high roosts. Livestock bellowed. The sea boiled. Water rose steadily. Then it wasn’t fun anymore.

In time, Mr. Cline realized his error and urged people to go, though he and his wife would stay to work. He raised the red and black hurricane flags. He insisted beachgoers leave, but to no avail. His earlier assessment had become gospel. Conditions worsened. It was past time to run, but there was nowhere to go and no way to get there.

Sin-Killer Griffin’s 1934 song, “Wasn’t That A Mighty Storm,” tells the story.

The trumpets sounded warning
Said it’s time to leave this place
But no one thought about leaving town
Till death stared them in the face

Wasn’t that a mighty storm?
Had two trains loaded
People trying to leave the town
Tracks gave way to the water now
All of those people drowned

Wasn’t that a mighty storm?

So, folks ran into the strongest buildings they could find. The 10 sisters at St. Mary’s Orphanage tied themselves to the 93 young souls in their care and together they sang the French fishermen’s protective hymn, “Queen of the Waves” to calm themselves and distract the children. Water rose. Nearby, people piled against the schoolhouse doors to keep the ocean out. Elsewhere, parents tied themselves to their children with straps pulled from steamer trunks. Some climbed to building tops. Many were caught in the open. The high tide, the winds, and the storm surge aligned and conspired.

A 16-foot wall of water screamed across the city’s sandy foundation, which was set offshore and not 9 feet above sea level. The buildings and homes nearest the beach screeched and fell to timber and battered one another and plowed through anything lesser, clearing 1,500 acres and stacking debris into an accidental breakwater 30 feet high and three miles long. Roof slats cut like invisible saw blades on 140 mph night winds. Mules drowned hitched to wagons. Louise Bristol Hopkins chopped holes through the floor in every room in her home to keep it on its foundation as the water rose. Throughout the night, people fought and clung and cried—and they must’ve prayed. The wind, water, and debris stripped people naked, flung them about, beat folks to death, and worse. Waves ripped apart embracing families. Some tried to swim. Some climbed rafts of churning debris.

One lucky old man was washed from home out to sea. He rode a piece of wood back into shore where he was slammed against a house until he was able to climb through a second-floor window. Then that house was carried out into the Gulf and smashed to pieces. So, the old man rode a section of roof back to shore where he was discovered the next day with broken arms amidst the debris—alive.

But mostly, people died. As many as 12,000. Among the dead were Mrs. Cline and all but three of those children from the orphanage. It was a city dismantled.

Death came walking on the water
Death calls, you gotta go
I said, death, your hands are clammy
You got them on the knee
You came and put a stone on my mother, oh
Coming after me

 Wasn’t that a mighty storm?

The next days dawned on horrors. On Sunday, September 9, two-thirds of the city was destroyed and one person out of five people lay dead in the debris. Longhaired women hung by their locks, tangled high in the trees. Bodies in every awful configuration. More missing. Thousands of horses, cattle, mules, and chickens scattered among the wreckage. No one knows the toll on wildlife. The light rail, water works plant, and telegraph lines were all destroyed. Railroad bridges, too. So there was no food or water, supplies, communication or transportation to speak of. Then, as is the way with disaster, things got worse.

Soon bodies and disease, stench and desperation swelled in the Texas heat. And, in some, so did depravity. Survivors killed one another over looting and fear thereof. One survivor recalled a man chewing the ring from the hand of a corpse. And there was no help to be had.

“Country districts are strewn with corpses. The prairies around Hitchcock are dotted with the bodies of the dead. Scores are unburied as the bodies are too badly decomposed to handle, and the water too deep to admit of burial…A pestilence is feared…the stench is something awful.”

It sounds like a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” but it’s a report out of The Detroit Free Press, Michigan, September 16, 1900.

That same grim picture was painted and repainted by survivor accounts, government records, rescuers, photos and film from Thomas Edison’s early movie camera (in the hands of his assistant Albert E. Smith), and news reports from The New York Times, The Tribune, The Evening Telegraph, London’s Westminster Gazette, and others.

By Monday, September 12, under martial law, Texas militia had put tents on the beach for survivors. And those same militia reportedly killed more than 20 looters and grave robbers. With the water receded, those same men used their weapons and whiskey to compel survivors to deal with the remains of Galvestonians and animals alike. They tried to bury bodies where they lay, but there wasn’t enough ground. They sent the bodies to sea on barges and tugs, but the Gulf returned them on a somber tide. Finally, the remains burned. By some accounts, no prayers were said. Once Houston got word, 100,000 gallons of water and 250 volunteers landed on Galveston. Soon, thousands of homeless folks took refuge back in Houston.

By September 14, cities and every state had sent aid and there were notable donations from St. Louis and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, who themselves had recently experienced deadly disasters.

By September 16, plans for recovery began. That accidental breakwater had protected many of the island’s wealthier homes, so there remained resources to lead the recovery.

On September 17, Clara Barton—Civil War hero and founder of the American Red Cross—arrived with a team to set up a warehouse and distribution center. Her celebrity brought resources and change: She demanded women (though elites) be put in leadership roles in the relief efforts. Meanwhile, the storm turned north and moved across the United States, killing sailors on the Great Lakes before finally dying off the Newfoundland coast.

Galveston’s relief became impressive recovery. Within a decade, engineers had raised 500 city blocks by as much as 11 feet. They had created a seawall that stretched 50 blocks. The city was rebuilt. To celebrate, residents planted 2,500 oleanders—an evergreen shrub with delicate flowers that are as beautiful as they are deadly toxic. In 1915 another storm tested Galveston. The flowers survived. The measures protected the city from that storm. But, not from the economic surge of Houston.

In today’s terms, the 1900 storm would have measured Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, so it wasn’t the costliest (Hurricane Katrina, 2005, $170 billion) or the most intense (Labor Day Hurricane, 1935). Still the recipe for disaster equaled a natural hazard event of sufficient strength plus an exposed population with deficient protections. So, 20% of Galveston’s population died and three-fourths of the infrastructure fell. Were New York City to experience similar damage today, we’d see more than 750,000 buildings destroyed, 15.6 million residents homeless, and 3.9 million dead. Hard to imagine recovering from that. Galveston was never the same.

The evacuation of survivors to Houston proved as cryptic and accurate a prediction as any from the Oracle of Delphi. While Galveston recovered, Houston thrived. A new deep-water port took prominence. There was no looking back. The Texas oil boom passed by Galveston to fuel Houston’s exploding growth. Healthcare, biomedical research, aerospace, and other industries excelled, widened the gap, driving Houston to become America’s fourth largest city—a global city.

About 300 hurricanes have hit the United States since 1851. The Atlantic hurricane season peaks in September, but the 2020 hurricane season will run for more than half the year (183 days) from June 1 to November 30. Thus far in into 2020 the season we’ve been spared extreme damage—but complacency is a fool’s endeavor. So, whether you’ve just moved to a coast or you’re a fifth generation salty dog, take time to consider your risks, prepare your family, and be part of the solution where you can.

Waves keep rolling, storms keep coming, the oleanders keep growing, and Galveston keeps going. Just in a different form: It’s now “The Oleander City”—a beach town with luxury homes and resorts perched on an island with beautiful natural resources, fish to catch, and stories to tell. The Oleander Festival has run every May since 1921. It is something to behold. Galveston today—with slightly more residents before the storm—ranks the 69th largest city in Texas.

Galveston, the oleander, and the sea remind us that—in nature—with beauty often comes danger. Meanwhile, history teaches us that every beloved city and thriving human settlement is just passing through—temporary residents of the natural world and subject to fires, storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, floods, droughts, tidal waves, plagues, pandemics, and so on. While we can’t control nature and we shouldn’t be paralyzed by fear, we can be scientific in our assessment of risks, intentional in our mitigation and preparedness, and mindful of the humans, communities, and the cultures involved.

Wasn’t that a mighty storm?
Wasn’t that a mighty storm in the morning?
Wasn’t that a mighty storm?
Blew all the people away

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