Galveston hurricane kills 12,000 and destroys city

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Galveston, Texas, September 10, 1900: A gigantic hurricane of biblical proportions strewed its wrath across Galveston, late Saturday afternoon, hurling 140 mile per hour winds and walls of water 20 feet high. A hurricane so horrific it is impossible for this reporter to describe adequately with mere words the death and destruction left in its wake.

An estimated 12,000 are dead in a city of 38,000 people. The wealthiest, most enterprising city in Texas has been obliterated.  An estimated 4,000 modern buildings and elegant homes have been reduced to mangled, waterlogged debris.

Saturday night, as the water began receding, reality raised wrenching images never to be forgotten by all who witnessed them.

The dead were visible everywhere—floating back and forth in the surf, strewn across our beaches, lying in the streets and on our lawns, and, of course, buried under tons of rubble. The stench is becoming unbearable.  Temporary morgues have been set up and are rapidly filled with stacked corpses.  Most bodies are so badly bloated from violent flood waters and mangled from flying debris that identification is hard.

Since ground burial is out of the question, two burial options have been implemented:  Burial at sea and burning on funeral pyres. At this hour, thousands of bodies are being loaded onto barges, weights tied to them, and they will be thrown into the Gulf of Mexico many miles off shore over the next several days. A dark pall of smoke hangs over Galveston Island, this morning, and likely will for days to come as more bodies are found and burned.

1900 Galveston Hurricane Map

Isaac Cline, the chief of the US Weather Service bureau in Galveston, knew what was coming, but he knew it too late.

On Saturday morning, there was some wind and rain, but no one was alarmed. Such weather was normal.  Even the encroaching high tide didn’t seem to bother the Galvestonians too much.They were accustomed to “overflows,” when high water sweeps over the beaches. 

But, by mid-afternoon, Cline’s trained weather eye began to see much more. The tide kept crashing further and further inland.  The wind was getting stronger. The barometric pressure was dropping. All signs a hurricane was coming.

Cline, who survived the storm but lost his wife in it, leaped into his horse drawn cart and began going up and down the beach yelling his warning to the curiosity seekers looking at the high water: “Get to the mainland and get there now! A hurricane is coming!”  Few heeded him.

By the time people realized the danger, the wooden bridges connecting Galveston Island to the mainland had been furiously destroyed by the crashing waves and the horrendous winds. Our citizens were trapped on an island 8.7 feet high.

Hundreds of people along the beachfront ran inland for shelter in large buildings downtown. No good. The beach houses were lifted up by the waves and hurled against the next row of buildings, crushing them in the process and all who were inside. And so it went, from row to row of buildings all across the island. Galveston became rubble and was completely covered by water by 7:00 PM, Saturday. The water began to recede slowly around 10:00 PM.

The dead can never return, but what about Galveston? Should it be resurrected?  That’s a decision that will take time and thought and prayer.  Right now, only God knows.

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Galveston was rebuilt but not as a wealthy port city and mercantile center but as a beach community. There were no modern communications in 1900 to track hurricanes, so Galveston was caught almost totally unaware. Hurricanes have continued to wreak havoc on the island over the past 100 years, even though it now has a 17 foot high sea wall.

The most recent storm was the third most devastating hurricane in US history, Hurricane Ike in 2008.  Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest US hurricane in terms of property damage and caused the death of 1836 people. But, all the hurricane deaths in United States history combined cannot match the death toll of this Galveston hurricane in 1900. The actual death toll was revised downward in the weeks following the storm from 12,000 to 8,000, and the number of destroyed structures from 4000 to 3600. But, still, a horrible nightmare on a Saturday night in Southern Memories 111 years ago.

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