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Hurricane season: America's deadliest hurricane

Wreckage from the Great Galveston hurricane in 1900.
Library of Congress

The traditional Atlantic hurricane season starts this week.

In the first of this three-part report, we look at the nation’s deadliest hurricane strike.

In 1900, Galveston, Texas, was the Lone Star State’s fourth-largest city and had been the largest at one time. A program by the group Texas History Lessons says things back then were much different when dealing with tropical storms.

“There was no seawall; the skinny barrier island was only about five feet above sea level,” said the narrator in the online lesson. “The highest point on the island was only 8.7 ft. above sea level. That doesn’t give much protection from a devastating thing like the hurricane in 1900.”

On Sept. 8, Galveston was slammed by a Category 4 hurricane, packing 145 mph sustained winds and a 15-foot storm surge. It is, to this day, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

“Galveston was a major business center for cotton, lumber, iron, fish, exporting, and shipping,” said the narrator. “Seven schools, 38 churches, and eight banks; the biggest port, the most millionaires, the classiest mansions. This all ended on Sept. 8, 1900. She never regained her status, despite refusing to die.”

Estimates place the death toll at 6,000-12,000, with damages totaled $30 million in 1901 money — $1.06 billion in today’s dollars.

“The day after the storm, one of the survivors said ‘such a scene of desolation has met the eyes of Galveston when day dawned Sunday, Sept. 9, has rarely been witnessed on Earth,’” said Lance Geiger, aka “The History Guy.” He says in a podcast that one of the most daunting tasks was caring for the dead.

“Beneath these masses of broken buildings, in the yards, in fence corners, in cisterns, in the bay, far out across the waters on the mainland shores — everywhere, in fact — were corpses,” Geiger said. “To bury the dead was a physical impossibility; officials tried dumping bodies out to sea, but many washed back. So the city had to burn huge fuel pyres on the beaches.”

Despite the first detection of the storm in late August in the tropical Atlantic, few knew it was bearing down on Galveston. That's because ships at sea did not have wireless communication to warn the coast. The death toll could have been worse if not for Isaac Cline, chief meteorologist at Galveston’s U.S. Weather Bureau office, the forerunner of the National Weather Service.

“Cline, who was monitoring the rising winds and water, broke weather bureau protocol by issuing a hurricane warning without getting authorization from bureau headquarters in Washington, D.C.,” Geiger said. “Concerned at the size of the swells, and suspecting that a major storm was approaching, he hoisted the hurricane-warning flags the day before the storm. It is unclear how many lives his warnings saved.”

The lone electronic communications at the time were the telegraph and telephone, but John Cangialosi at the National Hurricane Center in Miami says they fell short.

“These communications were poor and if there was severe weather, they essentially went out,” Cangialosi said. “They were OK on a day-to-day basis under most circumstances, but once the weather got lousy, they were essentially useless — really.”

The unnamed hurricane — they were not given names until 1953 — turned east-northeast and passed across the Great Lakes, New England, and southeastern Canada, before dissipating in the North Atlantic. Compared to current technology, Cangialosi says forecasters in the early 20th century were in weather “Stone Age.”

“Not only were communications bad, but there is hardly any weather data for us to know what was happening, anyway, even if we had good communications,” he said. “So it’s hard to imagine meteorologists today doing a good job back then with such limited resources.”

After the storm left the Texas Gulf Coast, Lance Geiger, who hosts “The History Guy” podcast, says residents set about rebuilding, including more protection against future hurricanes.

“J.M. O’Rourke and Company of Denver was hired for the construction of a 17,593 foot-long seawall that would touch three miles along the seaward side of the island,” Geiger said. “The American Society of Civil Engineers said that this wall was built to stand 17 feet above the average low tide measurement, and gave much-needed protection to the island.”

The project’s price tag was three and a half million dollars — $94 million today — and was completed in August 1910. Five years later, Geiger says the upgrades paid dividends.

“The storm damaged the wall, did significant damage to the parts of the town not protected by the wall,” he said. “[But] the damage was significantly less than in 1900, although 53 people died in the storm.”

Galveston’s seawall later was expanded to protect other parts of the island, to protect against future storm surges.

As for meteorologist Isaac Cline, who lost his wife in the 1900 hurricane, Geiger says he dedicated the rest of his life to a better understanding of severe weather and warning about it.

“His careful analysis of observational data of 20 years of tropical cyclones in the Gulf that was published in the 1926 book, “Tropical Cyclones,” revolutionized the scientific understanding of the nature of hurricanes, and better-prepared scientists to be able to warn people about the path a hurricane might take.”

Survivors’ accounts of The Great Storm are at the Rosenberg Library and Museum in Galveston.

In part two, technology begins to develop to track and predict hurricanes — thanks to a world war.