This is my first writeup for this group -- feedback and questions welcomed!
The Galveston Hurricane
Summary of Events (cribbed largely from Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson)On Saturday, September 8th, 1900 a powerful hurricane blew into the coast of Texas, hitting Galveston Bay dead on. At the time, Galveston was booming town in a heated rivalry with Houston (just 50 miles to the north) to become the pre-eminant port town in Texas. The paper reported on Friday, Sept 7th, that the 1900 census showed a 30% increase in population in just ten years, and the city was reputed to have more millionaires per square mile than Newport, RI. Galveston had it's own electric power plant, telephone service, two telgraph companies, three concert halls, and twenty hotels.
The city occupied a long, narrow island at the southern end of Galveston Bay, accessible by three railroad trestles and a wagon bridge. The highest point on the island was just 8.7 feet above sea level. Flooding was a common occurance: houses were routinely built on pilons several feet high, and in some places the curbs on streets were three feet high. However, it was common opinion that Galveston could not possibly be badly affected by tropical storms of any kind. In fact, Issac Cline, a well-respected citizen who was head of the Texas Section of the newly-formed U.S. Weather Bureau, declared in 1891 "that Galveston will at some time be seriously damaged by some such disturbance, is simply an absurd delusion." He further wrote, with understandable if misplaced pride after Galveston had weathered a tropical storm, "It would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city."
By Sunday, September 9th, the town had been nearly destroyed by a hurricane that was on an unusual but well-documented track over Cuba, across the Gulf of Mexico, and straight into the coast of Texas. Had it not been for the incredible hubris of turn-of-the-century America, combined with a bitter rivalry between the fledgling U.S. Weather Bureau and Cuban meteorologists, Galveston might have had some warning of what approached. As it was, the Weather Bureau remained certain that the storm would turn northeast, towards Florida. Even after the fact, some officials insisted that the Galveston hurricane was not the same that had blown over Cuba. That Isaac Cline was ignorant (through no fault of his own) of some basic signs of an approaching hurricane only made the basic problem worse.
Galveston itself was completely unprotected from tropical storms, despite the fact that two hurricanes had come ashore in 1875 and 1886, hitting Indianola (just 150 miles from Galveston). The second storm washed away the entire town, leaving it its wake a "universal wreck." Although Galveston responded initially by planning a dike to protect the town, after a few months interest waned.
On Saturday morning, the unusual weather had drawn the attention of the citizens of Galveston. Some called Isaac, who allowed there might be minor flooding; he advised merchants to raise their goods at least three feet off the ground. Many gathered at the beaches to watch the waves come in. Even as flood waters rolled over the island, submerging yards to the depth of 2-3 feet, children played happily and enjoyed the novelty of floating boats in their own backyards. By noon, the rain and wind had worsened, but survivors of the storm say for the most part they were not yet worried. Fear still lay ahead.
Over the afternoon, as the wind blew harder and harder, people began to seek refuge. Some of the first deaths occurred when a group of men continued their business luncheon in the popular Ritter's Cafe and Saloon. A gust of wind took off the roof, killing two men instantly and badly hurting five more. The waiter they sent for the doctor drowned.
Two trains were due into Galveston that afternoon. The first was stopped by washed-out track. Passengers transferred to a relief train, and took refuge on the second floor of the station after wading through waist-deep water. The second train was meant to cross to Galveston via a ferry boat, but the boat was unable to dock. The train began to back up, but was stalled on the track. Most people chose to stay with the train, believing it to be heavy enough to withstand even the worst kind of storm. Ten people struggled a quarter mile across a flooded plain to a nearby lighthouse, where they joined nearly 200 other people on the spiral stairs. The train refugees were the last to enter the lighthouse before the sea blocked the door. One of them, John Poe, saw the train begin to move again. He wondered at the time if he had made the right choice. He had: the train was found off the tracks after the storm passed, and all aboard were dead.
Isaac Cline's home was widely regarded as storm-proof. When he returned home the water in his yard was waist-deep; his wife and children had been joined by about fifty people from the surrounding neighborhood, including the contractor who built the house. Isaac and his brother Joseph argued about whether or not to evacuate the house or stay put. The wind was now ripping slate tiles off the roofs of nearby homes, turning them into dangerous projectiles. They decided to stay put.
Late that afternoon, as the storm neared, the wind direction changed. All day the wind had been pushing against the tide, keeping it in the bay. Now, the wind began to push the accumulated water back towards the doomed city.
At 6:30pm, the first floor of the Cline home was flooded to the depth of 8 inches. Looking outside, Isaac noted that the water which turned his family neighborhood into a fantastic water-scape was smooth, free of waves. This was because the broken wreckage of sea-front homes had made a kind of seawall nearly three stories high, that had held back the worst of the waves. This massive wall of smashed homes and their contents and their occupants was being pushed slowly ahead of the raging water. While Isaac watched, the water suddenly surged, rising four feet in seconds. All over Galveston people ran to their children in terror, trying to lift them about the swirling waters. Fortunate were those (like the Clines) who had a two-story house, and could retreat to the second floor. Those in single-story homes panicked. Judging based on his knowledge of his own home's position, Isaac estimated that the water was 15.2 deep in his neighborhood, and still rising.
Soon the water on the first floor of the Cline home was nine feet deep. Joseph was convinced the house would collapse; Isaac was sure it would stand. What neither of them knew was that the wall of debris was lurching inexorably towards them, pushing before it a segment of streetcar trestle a quarter-mile long. Observers all over the city saw one house after another collapse into the water. Isaac's wife, far along in a difficult pregnancy, lay in bed; his three daughters snuggled close to their mother for comfort. The fifty people had crowded into a bedroom on the windward side, hoping to be on top if the house were to fall over; the air in the room was insufferably hot and moist. The brothers argued with each other still, as Joseph tried to give the terrified people advice on how to survive once the house collapsed, and Isaac insisted the house would stand.
Imagine you are in your home, hoping to weather the storm: the house is shaking from the impact of shattered timbers and rooftops of other homes pushed by flood waters that are racing by and through the first story of your house. The wind is shrieking; rain spits in through holes in the roof and walls. Chunks of plaster fall from the ceiling and air-pockets in the wallpaper explodes. There is no light, or at best the wavering light of candles or little-used oil or kerosene lamps. Imagine you are a parent, and as the water rises and the house rattles slowly to bits around you, you look at your children. "Whom did you save? Did you seek to save one child, or try to save all, at the risk ultimately of saving none? Did you save a daughter or a son? The youngest or your firstborn? Did you save that sun-kissed child who gave you delight every morning, or the benighted adolescent who made your day a torment--save him because every piece of you screamed to save the sweet one? And if you saved none, what then? How did you go on?" (from Isaac's Storm, p. 181)
Elsewhere in Galveston, John Blagden staffed the Weather Bureau office alone in the dark. He was a new employee, and had been in the city just two weeks. He took measurements as the storm progressed. Outside instruments were stripped away in the high winds, but he recorded low barometric readings considered to be "impossible" at the time. At 7:30 pm, the storm began to pass the town, and the winds shifted again, this time from east to south. Windspeed increased and the change in direction brought even more of the accumulated wind-driven surge of waters to pour over the city. Later analysis of the storm suggested that Galveston was subjected to sustained winds of 150 mph with gusts of 200 mph or more.
Dr. Sam Young had spent the afternoon and evening alone in his home; his wife and children were away in San Antonio. He relished the opportunity to observe the storm in safety (he thought). As the storm worsened, he watched one after another of his neighbor's homes collapse into the waters and wash away. The wind began to tear his home apart, and he grabbed a door to serve as a raft. As his house shuddered and became buyount, he kicked away from the house and floated free in the storm surge. His raft came to rest on a mound of wreckage, where he spent the next 8 hours exposed to the worst the storm had to offer. He believed himself to be the only survivor of his entire neighborhood.
Back at the Cline's, something struck the house hard enough to knock it from it's foundation. As the house began to list to one side, Joseph grabbed two of his neices by their hands and hurled himself out through a nearby window, smashing through the glass and wooden shutters. He and the girls found themselves outside the house, now tiltled on its side and almost completely submerged. He believed all 50 occupants of the room they'd been in moments before, to be drowned beneath the sea.
Other families also found themselves out in the waters, as house after house dissolved under the combined force of wind and storm surge. The Credos (mom, dad, three girls, and a boy) initially planned to flee their home, but the water rose too quickly for that to be safe. They moved up to the second story and then the attic. The roof tore free and then slammed back down; Mrs. Credo sustained a head wound, but her husband bound it in the darkness. The house eased off its foundation and began to float. Mr. Credo ordered his family out the dormer window. The Goldmans, a neighboring family who had come to seek refuge in what they believed was a stronger house, refused to leave.
Mr. Credo told everyone to grab something and try to stay together in the water. Waves broke over them, hurling them apart. Time and again he herded them back together. A telegraph pole knocked young Raymond out cold; he bled severely. Mr. Credo worked hard to keep him afloat with his head above water. The family crawled onto an inverted roof, but it began to break apart. They moved onto a porch that floated by, which proved more stable and resiliant. Raymond remained unconscious. One of the girls, Vivian, was struck by a wave and knocked from the porch. She did not resurface. Another sister, Pearl, was badly injured when a spike of wood blew through her arm above her elbow. Again Mr. Credo doctored the wound as best he could, given the circumstances. The porch beached itself on a 12-foot pile of debris near an intact house. The family clambered inside: one daughter already gone, one son on the edge of death, another daughter at risk for infection and possibly amputaion, and mother with a bad head wound. It seemed awful, but the true extent of the family loss was unknown. Mr. Credo had adult daughters with families of their own, and a grown son who was away visiting his fiance.
One of the saddest stories from the Galveston Hurricane is that of St. Mary's Orphanage, located about three miles from the Cline home. Ten sisters and 93 children retreated from the waves, which by evening were crashing against the second story of the brick-and-stone ediface. The sisters herded the children away from the beachward side of the building, which was collapsing room by room into the sea. The mother superior ordered the sisters to tie themselves to the younger children with lengths of clothesline: each sister took six to eight children, leaving only the oldest boys free. The sisters led the children in singing hymns, to keep them calm as the storm increased its wrath. The led the children further and further into the building, but always the sea followed. The boys dorm and chapel were gone, and the orphans huddled in the last building, the girls dorm. The last building failed, and they were all swept away. All ten sisters and 90 of the 93 children died. Only three of the oldest boys, unencumbered by clothesline-tied bodies, survived; all three caught hold of the same floating tree. After the storm passed, the nuns and children were found, still tied together, on the beach buried in sand. The lines meant to save them had doomed them, tangling in submerged wreckage and drowning whole chains together.
Isaac Cline was in the center of the room when the trestle struck the house, sitting near his wife and six-year-old daughter, Esther. A wall fell on him, and he was trapped underwater. He could not move or breath, and felt sure he was going to die. He relaxed and accepted his fate, only to be driven to the surface of the water and pummeled with bullet-like rain. He was stuck between two large timbers, and coughing water. He was also alone.
He searched the waters for someone, anyone. He flailed in the water, hoping to feel something soft, but found only timbers, planks, and other sharp-edged debris. Then he spotted a child. It was his youngest daughter, Esther. He swam towards her, caught her arm, and soon they saw Joseph and his other two daughters in a flash of lightning. The group of five climbed over wreckage and fended off hulking, floating houses and strange adults who (at one point) tried to push the children off the floating debris. Their raft ran aground about four blocks from their former address. Isaac considered himself fortunate to have his brother and three daughters with him, even though one of the girls had a severe injury. He was also heartbroken, certain his pregnant wife had drowned. Later, he would discover that only eighteen of the more than fifty people in his home had survived the storm. His wife was not among the survivors. Her body was finally unearthed on Sept 30th, identifiable by the wedding ring and engagement ring Issac had given Cora. Unlike most of the dead at this point, Cora was claimed and buried in the Lakeview Cemetary a few days later. Isaac believed that even in death Cora had travelled with them and protected them; her body was found very close to where their raft had come to rest.
It is impossible for most people to imagine the gory scene of Galveston at dawn the following morning. Consider that Manhattanites suffered the stench of death for months following 9/11, yet the dead numbered less than 2,000, and many of those were incinerated and/or buried under tons of rubble. The Galveston dead numbered between six and eight thousand, and they were out in the open or only barely covered by widely scattered debris. The odor of putrefaction was already overpowering on the first day after the storm, and reached out over the sea and land in stinking tendrils of decay.
As the first outsiders began to reach the Galveston area, what struck them all was the sheer number of dead bodies lying everywhere. The condition of the bodies were terrible: they were battered and bruised, and often stripped naked from the forces of the wind and water. Those approaching by water had to push floating bodies out of the way in order to pass. Although some attempts were made to collect the dead in a morgue, the stench and sheer numbers soon made it an untenable proposition. They tried to bury some bodies at sea, because they could not dig enough graves. It was not done correctly, and the bodies washed back into Galveston on the next tide. The volume of decaying flesh would become a health hazard soon. Pyres were set and bodies were burned en masse where they were found.
The town itself was in ruins; it was nearly unrecognizable in places. Racial disharmony came to a head, as black men were conscripted at gunpoint to deal with corpses, and newspapers reported lurid stories of blacks looting dead bodies as they worked. The temperatures did not abate, and the town was clouded with a fog of putrefaction and human ash.
Help arrived: the Army (with food and shelter), Clara Barton (with disinfectants), and a veritable tidal wave of monetary donations from cities across the U.S. (channeled through the Red Cross). Barton had expected to find many orphans, but most of the children who survived did so only with the help of adults -- orphans were few and far between.
The storm blew north and then back east over the whole of North America. Although it lost the peak of its fury, it claimed a few more lives. The U.S. Weather Bureau went to work to absolve themselves of any guilt for their complete failure to accurately predict the Galveston Hurricane.
Galveston rebuilt, and this time they built a wall seventeen feet high that stood behind an advance barrier of boulders twenty-seven feet in length. Some two thousand buildings were lifted in to the air, and eleven million pounds of fill raised the height of the entire city. The citizens threw their heart and soul into recreating the boom town, but the arrival of the hurrican coincided with the discovery of oil. Houston won the city vs. city rivalry by a landslide, and Galveston became nothing more than a beach-town suburb with all the sorrows of modern urban life.
- est. 6,000 - 8,000 dead in Galveston (pop. 38,000)
- est. 10,000 left homeless
- 1/3 of city swept into the sea
- Weather Bureau in-fighting
- General ignorance of tropical storms
- Hubris of turn-of-the-century America
- Unusual weather conditions in the Gulf of Mexico ("The Loop")
- Isaac's Storm (Erik Larson)
- PBS Special (can't find title?? based on Isaac's Storm)