They were the “most horrible sights that ever a civilized people looked up,” remarked Dr. Isaac M. Cline, a noted meteorologist based in the Texas city of Galveston. The date was Sept. 9, 1900, a day after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Cline lost his pregnant wife among the 6,000-12,000 who perished after a hurricane roared ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, wiping out vast swaths of the city with huge storm surges and howling winds of at least 130 mph.
The port city, then one of the wealthiest in America in terms of per-capita income, lay in ruins; it would take decades to rebuild Galveston again although it never recovered its former glory. The remodeled Galveston would include a 7-mile, 17-foot foot seawall to protect against future storm surges.
More than 105 years later, the concrete barrier may be tested as the city on the tip of the Houston Channel anxiously awaits another ferocious blow.
But the Texans should be better prepared this time around.
Although there were some warnings, there were no weather satellites or Doppler radars in 1900 to warn the gulf region of the impending disaster.
The U.S. Weather Bureau, the predecessor of NOAA's National Weather Service, did issue warnings, but the details were scant and communication was difficult.
Playing in the waves
Instead, according to local reports, Sept. 8 was a normal weekend day for the city’s 38,000 residents. Even as the warm waters began to rise around dawn, they carried out their daily chores while children played in the tide.
Witnesses’ reports, compiled by Galveston’s Rosenberg Library, suggested a population blissfully unaware of the dangers.
Ida Smith Austin noted the rising tide Saturday morning. “But I felt no uneasiness and remarked to my niece, ‘We have nothing to fear, the water has never been over our place,’ and I just felt that it could not come.”
But soon afterward, “The wind seemed to grow more furious reaching the incredible velocity of one hundred and twenty miles an hour. Blinds were torn off windows, frames, sash and all blown in, and the rain water stood an inch and a half on upstairs floors. Then slowly dripped through taking paper and plastering from ceilings in rooms below.”
Cline, the meteorologist, tore around Galveston on horseback to warn people after he noted the dropping mercury in the barometer from his office high above the city. But time was running out.
15-foot storm surge
By the late afternoon, a 15-foot storm surge was pummeling the island. According to local witnesses, houses crumbled as a wall of debris described as at least two stories high pushed across the island, crushing everything in its path.
Houses along the beachfront were lifted from their foundations and sent careening into other buildings. Aftermath photographs showed wide empty spaces where houses once stood.
At the Sisters of Charity orphanage, just off the beach, only three children survived out of 90 after the dormitory was lifted off the ground and the roof came crashing in.
John D. Blagden Austin wrote his family about the destruction: “One that did not know would hardly believe that that had been a part of the city 24 hours before. I could not help seeing many bodies though I was not desirous of seeing them.”
Cline, for his part, was commended by the Weather Bureau for his heroics during the hurricane. Yet he endured criticism as well. Only nine years earlier, he had written of Galveston: "It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city."