Galveston, Texas, September 8, 1900
The greatest natural disaster in recorded American history was the hurricane which struck the Gulf Coast and devastated the city of Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. Between 6,000 and 8,000 people died in that storm.
People today talk about Andrew (1992) and Hugo (1989); many of us watched those on television. Some people are aware of Camille (1969) and the party that allegedly took place in an apartment building, in spite of warnings that the participants ignored. It was reported that, of the two dozen merry-makers, there was only one survivor (since disputed).
Galveston Island is a long, narrow barrier beach that runs parallel to the Texas coast some two miles away across Galveston Bay. The City of Galveston occupies the eastern end of the island and in 1900, the only way to or from the mainland were "the longest wagon bridge in the United States" and 3 wooden railroad trestles.
A wagon bridge? In 1900 the population of Galveston was 37,789, a lot of people to escape a hurricane by evacuating to the mainland.
Galveston is literally a city built on sand. In September 1900, the sand was only 8.7 feet above sea level at the highest point. In most residential areas, street levels ranged from 4 to 7 feet, with an average elevation of only about 4.5 feet. It wouldn't have taken much of a storm surge to wash over the city.
Clarence Ousley, editor of the Tribune at the time, is quoted as saying that Galveston was "a city of splendid homes and broad clean streets; a city of oleanders and roses and palms; a city of the finest churches, school buildings, and benevolent institutions in the South."
That was on Saturday, September 8, 1900.
On Sunday, September 9, Galveston was "a city of wrecked homes and streets choked with debris and six thousand corpses. It was a city whose very cemeteries had been emptied of their dead as if to receive new tenants."
The mighty storm, a category four hurricane, battered the Texas coast on September 8th 1900 with winds that were estimated to range from 125 to 150 miles per hour. A fifteen to twenty foot storm surge drowned Galveston Island. The next day, a bright blue Sunday, one in six Galveston citizens lay entombed in collapsed buildings, or bodies dumped at the whim of the receding flood.
The storm was first noticed on August 27th in the equatorial mid-Atlantic. Still getting organized it drifted westward through the Greater Antilles with moderate winds. Nothing was moderate about the rain. Miles of railway roadbed were washed away in Jamaica. Santiago de Cuba was inundated by 10 inches of rain in just eight hours on Monday, September 3rd; two feet before it was over.
Ships were cast ashore in Florida from Palm Beach south to the Keys on September 5th. Gaining energy from tepid Gulf waters, the storm made a beeline for Galveston and its rendezvous with history.
The storm cut Galveston Island off from the mainland and completely submerged it under the sea. In addition to the 6,000 or more dead, it left 1,000 survivors naked and 5,000 more bruised and battered. In a 1,500-acre area of total destruction, 2,636 houses - nearly half the homes in the city - were swept out of existence. Elsewhere, at least 1,000 more were reduced to wreckage. Not a single building escaped damage.
Lacking the early warning systems we have today, the city was taken by surprise. It had withstood bad storms in the past, and few expected the worsening weather caused by this storm to be different.
By 7:45 a.m. Saturday it was raining in Galveston. As the morning progressed, people living in lightly built houses near the beach moved to more substantial buildings nearby, or visited relatives living on higher ground to await the end of the overflow.
At 10:10 a.m., the Weather Bureau in Washington telegraphed that the storm center was now expected to pass west of the city, which would put Galveston in the dangerous right semicircle of the storm.
By noon, the wind was blowing out of the northeast at more than 30 miles per hour and increasing steadily. The barometer was dropping rapidly, and heavy rain was falling. The Gulf was now 3 to 5 feet deep in many streets near the beach in the eastern and southern sections of the city. Galvestonians coming home for lunch had to wade through water up to their waists and sometimes their chins to reach their houses.
At about this time, a number of lightly constructed cottages near the beach in the eastern end of the city were washed off their foundations and began to break up. The wagon bridge and train trestles connecting Galveston to the mainland were now submerged under the rising waters of the bay, which were flooding inland over the wharves along the northern side of the city.
It was now too late to get off the island.
By 2:30 p.m., the wind was blowing from the northeast at 42 miles per hour, and the rain was torrential.
By 4 p.m., the wind had reached full hurricane force. Sometime between 4 and 5 p.m., the waters of the bay met those of the Gulf, and the entire city was flooded. By 5:15, the wind was blowing at 84 miles per hour with gust to 100 miles per hour, and the wind gauge had blown away. The wind was rolling up tin roofs and toppling telephone poles. In the business district, large chunks of masonry were crashing into the flooded streets. Near the beach, homes were being pounded to pieces by wind, water, and racing debris.
The water, racing rapidly from east to west, continued to rise steadily until about 6:30, when it suddenly rose 4 feet. The Gulf was now 10 feet above the street, which was 5.2 feet above sea level. During the next hour, the water rose another 5 feet.
With the death toll as high as it was, there are no end of the tragic stories that can be told. One of the worst was what happened to St. Mary's Orphanage and its residents.
The rambling wooden buildings stood on the beach 3 miles west of the city. They housed 10 Roman Catholic Sisters of the Incarnate Word, 93 orphans, and a workman. By 10 o'clock Saturday morning, the water was already 3 feet deep. Later, as the storm worsened, the sisters took the children to the chapel on the first floor of the girl's building. They stayed there praying until rapidly rising water drove them to the second floor. From there they watched the boy's building break up in the storm. About an hour later, the roof of their own building collapsed. With death threatening, the sisters tied the children together in groups, then to themselves, attaching ropes to their waists.
Only a few scattered bricks from the foundations marked the site of the orphanage after the storm. Ninety bodies were found nearby, including those of two of the sisters. The bodies of two other nuns, Sisters Raphael and Genevieve, were found at Texas City, on the mainland. Six more were found elsewhere on the island and mainland. One nun still had nine small children tied to her body; another was holding a child in each arm.
Only three orphans, all boys, survived the storm. Somehow they got out of the building and onto an uprooted tree sweeping by on the surging water.