In late August 1900, a cyclone began brewing over the Caribbean Sea – an event that was not that noteworthy as the region was starting its annual hurricane season. However, this was no ordinary cyclone. As it reached the Gulf of Mexico, the cyclone became a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 145mph.
What would become known as the Galveston Hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, killing between 6,000 and 12,000 people and causing over $35 million worth of damage (the equivalent of over $1 billion in 2021).
‘The Wall Street of the Southwest’
The city of Galveston, Texas was founded in 1839 and had boomed since then. By 1900, it had a population of nearly 40,000 people and one of the highest per capita income rates in the United States.
Galveston was effectively little more than a sandbar with bridges to the mainland. Despite its vulnerable location on a low, flat island along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, it had weathered several previous storms and hurricanes with little damage. Even when the nearby town of Indianola was virtually flattened by hurricanes twice, proposals to build a seawall for Galveston were repeatedly quashed, with opponents saying it was not needed.
Warnings of an approaching storm began to be noted by the Weather Bureau on 4 September 1900. Unfortunately, tensions between the United States and Cuba meant that meteorological reports from Cuba were blocked, despite their observatories being some of the most advanced in the world at the time. The Weather Bureau also avoided the use of the terms hurricane or tornado to stop the population panicking.
On the morning of 8 September, ocean swells and cloudy skies began to set in but Galveston’s residents remained unconcerned: rain was normal for the time of the year. Reports suggest that Isaac Cline, director of the Galveston Weather Bureau, began to warn people living in low-lying areas that a severe storm was approaching. But by this point, it was too late to evacuate the town’s population even if they had taken the storm warning seriously.
The hurricane hits
The hurricane hit Galveston on 8 September 1900, bringing with it storm surges of up to 15ft and winds of over 100mph were measured before the anemometer was blown away. Over 9 inches of rain fell within 24 hours.
Eyewitnesses reported bricks, slate and timber becoming airborne as the hurricane tore through the town, suggesting winds probably reached up to 140mph. Between strong winds, storm surges and flying objects, almost everywhere in the city was damaged. Buildings were swept from their foundations, almost all wiring in the city went down and the bridges connecting Galveston to the mainland were swept away.
Thousands of homes were destroyed, and it’s estimated 10,000 people were left homeless by the events. There was almost nowhere sheltered or clean left for survivors to stay in the aftermath. A wall of debris that stretch 3 miles was left in the middle of the island following the hurricane.
With telephone lines and bridges destroyed, it took longer than usual for news of the tragedy to reach the mainland, meaning relief efforts were delayed. It took until 10 September 1900 for the news to reach Houston and be telegraphed to the Governor of Texas.
Around 8,000 people, roughly 20% of Galveston’s population, are thought to have perished in the hurricane, although estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000. Many were killed as a result of the storm surges, although others were trapped under debris for days, dying painfully and slowly due to the slow rescue attempts.
The sheer number of bodies meant it was impossible to bury them all, and attempts to abandon the bodies at sea simply resulted in them being washed to shore again. Eventually, funeral pyres were set up and the bodies burned day and night for several weeks following the storm.
Over 17,000 people spent the first two weeks after the storm in tents on the shoreline, whilst others began to construct shelters from salvageable debris materials. Much of the city was obliterated, and estimates suggest that around 2,000 survivors left the city, never to return following the hurricane.
Donations flooded in from across the US, and a fund was quickly established which people could apply to for money to rebuild or repair their home if it was damaged by the hurricane. Less than a week after the hurricane, over $1.5 million had been raised to help rebuild Galveston.
Galveston never fully recovered its status as a commercial centre: the discovery of oil further north in Texas in 1901 and the opening of the Houston Ship Channel in 1914 killed any dreams of Galveston’s prospects being transformed. Investors fled and it was the vice and entertainment based economy of the 1920s that brought money back to the city.
The beginnings of a seawall were built in 1902 and continued to be added to over the subsequent decades. The city was also raised by several metres as sand was dredged and pumped underneath the city. In 1915 another storm hit Galveston, but the seawall helped prevent another catastrophe like 1900. Hurricanes and storms in more recent years have continued to put the seawall to the test with varying degrees of effectiveness.
The hurricane is still remembered annually by the townspeople, and a bronze sculpture, named ‘ The Place of Remembrance’, sits on the Galveston seawall today to commemorate one of the deadliest natural disasters in American history.