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Texas | Columns | All Things Historical

THE GALVESTON STORM
1900 Storm

by Archie P. McDonald, PhD
Archie McDonald, PhD
Because it occurred before petulant females -- and later males -- lent their names to hurricanes, this one will always be known simply as the Galveston storm, or hurricane. Galveston has been the bullseye for many of them, but the one that struck on September 8, 1900, still reigns as the worst natural disaster in United States history because an estimated 10,000 people lost their lives.
statue in memory of the Galveston 1900 storm
Statue in memory of the victims of the 1900 Storm
Photo courtesy Lou Ann Herda
Residents of the island city first read about a disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico in their newspapers on September 4. They knew that the storm had caused damaged on the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts but paid little heed because such storms occurred frequently. And the Weather Bureau lacked the ability then to determine that the storm had strengthened or to communicate such findings with sufficient urgency.

The night before a moon shown brightly over the Gulf, but the day began with rain and a wind. Even a rising tide failed to alarm the 38,000 Galvestonians, except for Weather Bureau official Isaac M. Cline, who inspected water levels in lower sites and began to warn residents to evacuate to higher ground. Then the wind and the water came in greater volume than anyone there had ever seen.

Steady winds of 84 mph with gusts up to 100 mph were recorded before a nemomember was blown away; survivors estimated that the wind eventually reached at least 120 mph. A sudden water rise in the Gulf rushed in, covering the island to a depth of fifteen feet. Every building sustained damage and a great many were destroyed when the giant wave crushed one against the other.

The Galveston storm of 1900 left a significant legacy. Though Galveston was no longer Texas' largest city -- it ranked fourth in 1900 -- it still enjoyed considerable importance in trade and transportation. Such was interrupted with negative consequences for islanders.

Amid such destruction, the city's government, under an alderman system, ceased to function. It was replaced by an appointed commission, with each commissioner responsible for a city service such as the police department, fire departments, or sanitation. This worked so well that Galvestonians, plus the citizens of over 600 other cities, adopted it, changing over to elected rather than appointed commissioners.
Galveston Texas seawall
The Seawall
Built in 1902 to prevent the tidal surge of the 1900 disaster.
First section was 3.3 miles

Photo courtesy Lou Ann Herda
A seawall was constructed on the city's beachfront, and salvageable buildings were raised on jacks and sand was filled under them to raise the level of the island to that of the seawall, approximately seventeen feet.

Galveston and East Texas has experienced other storms, notably Hurricane Carla, but none has matched the granddaddy of them all, the storm of 1900.


All Things Historical August 19-25, 2001 column

A syndicated column in over 40 East Texas newspapers
(Archie P. McDonald is Director of the East Texas Historical Association and author or editor of over 20 books on Texas)

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