“I should as soon think of founding a city on an iceberg as on Galveston Island, if I looked to its safety and perpetuity.”
Before the deadliest storm in US history left low-lying Galveston flattened and in shock, it was a prosperous town. Forty thousand people called it home and a steady stream of cotton steamers created a reliable source of income. The town was littered with mansions, symbolic of the immense wealth being accumulated here; before the storm there were 26 millionaires living within a five block radius. Trolleys carried those too lazy, rich or old to walk about town. At the end of the 19th century, it was the most important seaport in the USA and it seemed nothing could hold it back.
Except the weather had other ideas. After a calm, sunny week, as evening turned into the night of Friday 7th September 1900 the winds began to pick up. Rain lashed the two-storey homes that lined the Strand and weather observers looked on anxiously. Forecasting was in its infancy in those days, but even then the rudimentary instruments told a frightening story. Wind speeds were increasing, reaching 100mph that night, before the equipment blew away. Some meteorologists think the wind speeds could have reached as much as 145mph at their peak. The barometric pressure was the lowest ever recorded up to that point in US history.
By 4am, the sea had surged inland, flooding the town’s streets. A four and a half metre storm surge was more than the island could cope with, the highest ground being being little more than half that. The heavy swell continued to be a concern as day broke. By noon, much of the island was underwater, but there was worse to come. Strengthening winds battered the feeble housing. Debris flew around in the wind acting as missiles against any building still standing.
One observer was sheltering in a house that had withstood such an attack for several hours. He noted that a man trying to reach that same home had his faced sliced clean off by a flying roof slate. It must have been a terrifying time for those who were to become the survivors, that thud of wave-driven timbers on the walls like a mediaeval battering ram on a wooden castle door.
At least 6000 would never know such lasting fear. Whole families were wiped out, making a confirmed death toll impossible to ascertain, but it’s generally agreed that the figure is a conservative estimate of the final death toll. As Sunday morning dawned, the skies had cleared and the storm had passed. What was left was unrecognisable. Much of the island was completely flattened, the powerful waves scouring the landscape and leaving it in places as pristine as when the first settlers had laid out their street plan. A few blocks further along, huge mounds of debris concealed the bodies of the dead. Here and there, properties listed at angles more commonly associated with earthquake damage; a few had been turned completely upside down. From 9th Street east towards the beach, block after block no longer existed.
The human cost was appalling. 5000 families were left destitute; it would be days before word reached the Red Cross in Washington and the much-needed aid would arrive. Marshal law was instigated in an attempt to stave off looting. Pilferers were shot. Those in authority also had to deal with the tricky question of burying the dead. With no time in the heat and humidity to dig sufficient graves, rocks were attached to bodies and they were buried at sea. The water that had killed them would be their final resting place.
Yet the sea had other ideas, washing bloated and putrid corpses up on the shore day after day. A decision was taken to burn the bodies. Those enduring such a horrendous task were paid in whiskey until they threw up from the disgusting stench. It was a job no one wanted but someone had to do. The risk of disease for the survivors was just too high a price to pay to leave the bodies to rot. As the impact of the disaster sank in, page after page of the newspaper was filled with the names of those who had perished.
But the survivors stayed to resurrect their city. In 1902 a solid sea wall was proposed and within two years the designs had become a reality. Together with the wall, a regrading of the roads was undertaken, raising the level of the streets. 3000 houses would be lifted and sand dredged from the a Gulf of Mexico pumped underneath them so the buildings would sit three metres higher, above the danger level. In future, any incoming wave would be weakened by the increased gradient. The cost of this ambitious engineering project was a staggeringly high $6 million. By 1905, Galveston was ready to take on the elements once more. It didn’t have to wait long. In 1915, a hurricane hit, similar in magnitude to the Great Storm of 1900. The city’s residents held their breath. Would their defences hold?
They would: just eight people died. Galveston had a future, though it would never regain its pre-storm commercial status.