One Of The Deadliest Hurricanes In U.S. History Hits Galveston, Texas

By | September 8, 2021

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Photo shows what remains of a building completely destroyed by the 1900 flood and hurricane. (Getty Images)

Hurricanes may be getting stronger and more frequent, but some of the worst storms happened more than a century ago. In fact, the 1900 Galveston hurricane was one of the nation's deadliest.

The Confusion Before The Storm

On the morning of September 4, 1900, warning reports began to pour into the weather bureau office in Galveston from the Washington headquarters that a tropical storm had recently moved over Cuba. At the time, Havana was home to one of the most advanced weather observation stations on Earth, but the U.S. had a tense relationship with Cuba following the Spanish-American War, so weather bureau director Willis Moore blocked all incoming telegraphs from Cuba. By the time the U.S. was aware of the hurricane, it had traveled well into the Caribbean.

Local offices of the weather bureau were not allowed to issue storm warnings without permission from the central office nor use scary words like "tornado" or "hurricane" for fear of inciting unnecessary panic, so when the more than 37,000 residents of Galveston woke up to a churning ocean but relatively clear skies, they saw no cause for concern. After all, Galveston weather bureau director Isaac Cline had once insisted that serious hurricanes couldn't reach Galveston, and he had denied the reports from Washington. He later claimed that he rode his horse up and down the beaches of Galveston Island to warn the people of the approaching hurricane.

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Floating wreckage near Texas City, a typical scene for miles along the waterfront. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1900 Galveston Hurricane

The hurricane began to lash Galveston Island in the afternoon of September 8, 1900. Wind speeds were measured at 115 miles per hour, but they eventually got so intense that they actually blew away the wind gauge, so there's no telling at what speed they topped out. What today's scientists would classify as a Category 4 hurricane devastated the island, but it was the storm surge that was really destructive. By three p.m. that afternoon, the entire island was covered in water as 15-foot waves soared inland and ocean spray climbed 115 feet up a lighthouse called Bolivar Point. Roofs were torn from nearly every building on the island, homes and businesses built on loose sand slid off their foundations, and more than 1,000 people took shelter at the Ursuline Convent, where many were killed when a 10-foot wall collapsed and a large portion of the building came down. The St. Mary's Orphanage collapsed completely, killing everyone inside.

The exact number of people killed in the 1900 Galveston hurricane will never be known, as the bodies of many victims were washed into the Gulf of Mexico and never recovered, but at least 6,000 people are estimated to have died in the calamity. Although the true number may be as high as 12,000, even conservative figures mark the Galveston hurricane as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.