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Galveston Hurricane: The Deadliest Day In American History

1900s | December 14, 2020

Removing dead bodies to the barges for burial at sea. (NOAA Photo Library/Wikimedia Commons)

September 8, 1900 became the deadliest day in American history when Galveston, Texas experienced one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever hit the Gulf Coast. Streets were flooded, homes were destroyed, and between 8,000 and 12,000 people lost their lives.

A Storm A-Coming

More than a week before the hurricane, a ship about 1,000 miles off the coast of the West Indies noted that the weather seemed "unsettled." That's not exactly a warning sign, but that unsettled weather soon became disastrous when it reached North America. Storms hit the Caribbean and brewed off the coast of Florida, but they were nowhere near as bad as what hit the Gulf of Mexico.

It didn't help that America was only two years removed from the Spanish–American War, which ended with Spain relinquishing claims on Cuba. The Caribbean country had become a top authority in storm-tracking, so out of jealousy, the American Weather Bureau's director "shut off the flow of data from Cuba to the U.S." That meant no warning that the storm—which the Weather Bureau had predicted would move up the East Cost—was coming for Galveston. It was a real "cutting off your coast to spite a completely different country" situation.

Floating wreckage near Texas City. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

No Warning

By September 6, authorities finally had some inkling that the storm was headed for Galveston, but by that time, heavy winds had knocked down the city's telegraph lines, so there was no way to warn them. The one message that got through was from Captain Halsey of The Louisiana, who had left New Orleans that day and noted the movements of the hurricane he encountered there.

When the local media got around to publishing information about the hurricane, they reported it as nothing more than the usual summer storm. In a tragically ironic twist, Weather Bureau official Isaac M. Cline told the public the storm waves weren't powerful enough to cause substantial damage and ended up losing his wife to the hurricane. Katherine Vedder Pauls remembered seeing the wall of water off the coast:

Everyone went about their usual tasks until about 11 a.m., when my brother, Jacob, and our cousin, Allen Brooks, came from the beach with the report that the Gulf was very rough and the tide very high ... About half past three, [her brothers] came running, shouting excitedly that the Gulf looked like a great gray wall about 50-feet high and moving slowly toward the island.

Galveston disaster, Texas: a slightly twisted house. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Commence Destruction

On what would become the deadliest day in American history, a Category 4 hurricane smashed into Galveston. A storm surge of over 15 feet sunk the city completely underwater, and winds that topped out at 145 miles per hour sent shingles flying from roofs at deadly speeds. Houses were demolished while the residents of Galveston, human and otherwise, scrambled to stay afloat.

The most horrific moment of the hurricane occurred when waves smashed into two dorms at St. Mary's Orphan Asylum. When the bodies of the nearly 100 children who lived there were discovered the next day, rescue workers were puzzled to find that they were all tied together; it later came to light that the 10 nuns on duty had lashed the children together with clothesline in a desperate attempt to keep the waves from tearing them away. Only three of the boys from St. Mary's managed to escape.

Once home to some of the most beautiful residential structures in the world, Galveston became a city of the displaced over the course of one day. As much as 80% of the city's population was without a place to sleep, and estimations of one in five people were dead.

Carrying out bodies just removed from the wreckage. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Pulled From The Wreckage

With Galveston in ruins by September 9, there was nothing to do but attempt to pick up the pieces. Refuse and dead bodies filled the streets, and when enough volunteers couldn't be found to clear the wreckage away, 50 black men were forced at gunpoint to load dead bodies onto a barge 700 at a time.

The barges were then taken out to the ocean, where the bodies were unceremoniously dumped in the water, but the city was forced to explore alternative methods of disposal when the bodies began washing up on the beach. Instead, they erected funeral pyres wherever bodies had piled up and let them burn day and night, paying the workers tasked with this unpleasant duty in free whiskey to keep their senses dulled.

The survivors who chose to stay in Galveston were set up in temporary army shelters, with 17,000 people taking up residence anywhere the military could stash them for the next two weeks. Galveston's building committee offered budgets to rebuild to a few applicants, but most were forced to make do with "storm lumber" salvaged from the wreckage of the city. Basic water service was returned on September 13, and cities across the country donated to Galveston's rebuilding effort. It's believed that it cost the city an estimated $138.6 billion.

Memorial for the victims lost at sea. (Jim Evans/Wikimedia Commons)

The Aftermath Of The Galveston Hurricane

Galveston suffered greatly from the hurricane of 1900, but they also learned a valuable lesson. The city brought in engineers Alfred Noble, Henry Martyn Robert, and H. C. Ripley to design a seawall 17 feet tall and 10 miles wide to stop future storms, whose construction began in 1902 but didn't end until 1963. Thanks to their efforts, when a similar hurricane struck in 1915, only 53 people lost their lives.

As the years went on, people spoke less and less about the Galveston hurricane of 1900, having no desire to relive the trauma of the day, but the destructive power of the storm influenced meteorologists to stop letting politics dictate their duties. Today, Galveston remembers the plight of early citizens who survived one of the deadliest storms of the 20th century. In 2000, the city implemented an annual public remembrance of the storm, and a sculpture depicting a family clinging together was dedicated on the Galveston Seawall.

Tags: 1900s | natural disasters | texas

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.