The Galveston Hurricane
Digital History ID 3688
The 1900 Galveston hurricane was the worst natural disaster America ever suffered. Nearly three quarters of the island city was demolished. Over 6000 people—one in six of the city’s residents—died.
In 1900, Galveston was Texas’s leading city and its only deep water port. It boasted Texas' first post office, telephones and medical college.
Months after the hurricane, Galveston started construction on a 17-foot-high, 3-mile-long sea wall. Civil engineers also raised Galveston's elevation, the highest point of which before the storm was less than nine feet above sea level. Thousands of homes and buildings were propped up so earth could be filled in underneath, a method that raised some structures as high as 17 feet. Galveston also instituted a new kind of government to rebuild, the city manager system.
…it is estimated that prior to 8 p.m. [September 8, 1900] the wind attained a velocity of at least 120 miles per hour….
I [Isaac Cline, who directed the Galveston Weather Bureau] reached home and found the water around my residence waist deep….At this time, however, the roofs of houses and timbers were flying through the streets as though they were paper…. Many people were killed by flying timbers about this time while endeavoring to escape the town.
The water rose at a steady rate from 3 p.m. until about 7:30 p.m., when there was a sudden rise of about four feet in as many seconds…. The water at this time was about eight inches deep in my residence, and the sudden rise of 4 feet brought it above my waist before I could change my position. The water had now reached a stage 10 feet above the ground at Rosenburg avenue (Twenty-fifth street_ and Q street, where my residence stood. The ground was 5.2 feet elevation, which made the tide 15.2 feet. The tide rose the next hour, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., nearly five feet additional, making the total tide of the locality of about twenty feet….
By 8 p.m. a number of houses had drifted up and lodged to the east and southeast of my residence, and these with the force of the waves acted as a battering ram against which it was impossible for any building to stand for any length of time, and at 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered through being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child…. We drifted for three hours, landing 300 yards from where we started…..
Sunday, September 9, 1900, revealed one of the most horrible sights that ever a civilized people looked upon. About three thousand homes, nearly half the residence portion of Galveston, had been completely swept out of existence, and probably more than six thousand persons had passed from life to death during that dreadful night…. There is not a house in Galveston that escaped injury, and there are houses totally wrecked in all parts of the city. All goods and supplies not over eight feet avoe floor were badly injured, and much was totally lost….
Houston Daily Post, September 12, 1900
The military authorities gave orders that where a person was caught looting the dead that he was to be shot and before I [reporter James H. Quarles] left the city at 4 p.m. the report was that four persons had been executed by the soldiers….
No effort was made Sunday to recover the dead, as the water was still high. A large number were collected before noon, and the burial of the dead began, but it was found impossible to dig graves on the island for this purpose…. Engaging a tugboat and barge…arrangements [were made] to send the bodies to sea…. There was no time for identification. Decomposition had set in, the town was full of stench, and at once every one began to think of the pestilence which would follow unless the dead were at once disposed of….I saw boatload after boatload, fifteen and twenty bodies at a time, brought to the wharf and put upon the barge…. The day I was there the barge was loaded with 1000 bodies and was towed out to sea….
The estimates as to the loss of life are varied…. From what I could learn I consider that more than 5000 persons were lost….
Up to Monday afternoon water was a very scarce article. The water works plant was not in working condition, and what water was on hand was used judiciously….
The loss of animal life on the island was something terrible. Thousands of cattle and horses were drowned, and lay about the streets of the city. The committee decided that the best thing to do, would be to dump all of these bodies into the bay, and let them float out with the tide, and if caught in the gulf flow they would be taken far away. This was being done Monday….
Source: Monthly Weather Review, XXVIII (September, 1900), 371-76
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