On September 8, 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history occurred when the low-elevation island of Galveston, Texas, was struck by a category four hurricane that resulted in 135 mph winds and a deadly tidal surge. The hurricane, also known as the Great Galveston Storm, leveled 3,600 buildings and killed an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people. Primitive forecasting techniques and ignored warnings contributed to the high number of fatalities.
Galveston was the largest city in Texas at the turn of the century. It had a bustling shipping port and was among the richest urban areas in the United States. It had a population of 37,000 that swelled each summer when vacationers flocked to the island to enjoy the beaches.
Hurricane forecasting science at the turn of the century was not very sophisticated. The U.S. Weather Bureau relied on warnings from arriving ships or telegraphed warnings from islands in the Caribbean. In early September 1900, Cuban meteorologists sent warnings of an impending storm headed for the U.S. which were largely ignored. The U.S. Weather Bureau eventually issued a hurricane warning but predicted the storm would pass over Florida and continue north along the Eastern Seaboard. The storm headed into the Gulf of Mexico, however, and the first storm warnings in Galveston were not issued until September 7th. Few people heeded the warnings.
The morning of September 8th dawned cloudy and with a powerful surf. Soon the skies turned dark and the winds picked up. The Furniss family of St. Louis, Missouri was vacationing at the Beach Hotel in Galveston with their three daughters, unaware that a deadly hurricane was taking aim at the city. Galveston sat just nine feet above sea level and as the hurricane came ashore, a 15-foot storm surge rolled in.
When the storm hit, the hotel was completely demolished, and the Furniss family presumed dead. Their only other child, an 18-year-old son, was home in Missouri when he received news of the disaster. He quickly traveled to Galveston to search for his family. Upon arrival, a local militia involuntarily enlisted him into service to search for survivors and bury the dead. Thousands of bodies were strewn about the island and mountains of debris piled everywhere. The heat and humidity created a terrible stench and workers initially tried to bury vast numbers of the dead at sea. However, the tide just washed the bodies back to shore. Eventually, they burned the dead instead. The bodies of the Furniss family were among those finally found and buried at sea.
Another tragedy occurred at the St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum, which sat directly on the shore. It was built to take advantage of the fresh sea breezes which nuns hoped would protect the children from Yellow Fever and other illnesses that had killed their parents. As the storm intensified, the nuns gathered all 93 children and moved to the second floor to escape the rising water. As an added protection, the nuns tied themselves to small groups of children. Eventually, the storm ripped the orphanage from its foundation, trapping the children. Tragically, all were lost except three boys who clung to a tree.
As the stories of the devastation emerged, a nationwide relief effort sprang up to help the people of Galveston. To prevent a similar tragedy from happening again, Galveston built a 17-foot seawall and brought in tons of sand to raise the city’s elevation as much as 18 feet near the seawall, with a downward slope toward the bay. Buildings that managed to survive the hurricane were lifted to the new ground level.