The Galveston hurricane of September 8, 1900, is still regarded as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, this devastating storm swept away everything in its path, left an estimated 10,000-12,000 dead and thousands more homeless. Residences and businesses were leveled; debris was tossed everywhere, and the smell of death blanketed the entire island.
At the time, Galveston was the largest city in Texas, a bustling seaport with a population of 38,000. Located on an island nestled in the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston is a mile from the mainland and approximately sixty miles from what was then the smaller city of Houston. The island itself is less than thirty miles long and only three miles across at its widest point. Then, as now, it was a place well used to tropical storms but on that fateful Saturday, it was woefully unprepared.
To begin with, Galveston was not very high above sea level - an average of nine feet. The hurricane, packing 135 mile-an-hour winds (a Category 4 in today's terminology), propelled a 15-foot wall of water in front of it. Many who were not engulfed by the rushing flood were either killed or injured by flying debris.
The U.S. Weather Service's technology - mainly telephone, telegraph and the posting of warning flags - turned out to be inadequate for a storm of such magnitude. Galveston residents knew about the hurricane from September 4 as it made its way across Cuba. The problem was the exact path the hurricane would take was uncertain and this was compounded by lack of strong technical communications. Apart from a few water swells which Galvestonians were well used to, they didn't suspect anything more significant was afoot.
When the warning finally came to move to higher ground, too many people could not – or would not – get out in time. As the relative of one of the victims said afterward, "We didn't want to leave. We'd been through it before and weren't worried. It had never been that bad."
The aftermath of the storm not only revealed a horrific death toll, but a totally destroyed city. It spelled the death knell of a place that had prided itself on being "The New York City of the South." Galveston would be rebuilt, raised higher off the ground and with a seawall to protect it, but this time as a beach town rather than a seaport. The island's vulnerability and the discovery of oil in Houston would see to the relegation of Galveston as secondary to the newly booming Texas city.
To reiterate the words of one of the women in The Promise, "...What the storm did to us was cruel...some things just can't be put right."
Picture of Galveston hurricane aftermath by B.L. Singley from Wikipedia.org
This article was originally published in April 2014, and has been updated for the
May 2015 paperback release.
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