Thursday, 10 September 2015

Remembering 'The Great Storm of 1900' 115 years later

On a balmy evening 115 years ago Tuesday, the breeze blowing off the Gulf of Mexico became unusually gusty on Galveston Island. Water rose on The Strand and other streets near the port and the weather became so rough some businesses decided to send their workers home early.

Still, nobody suspected the barrier island was about to fall victim to an apocalyptic hurricane that would go down in American history. The city was about to befall a catastrophe at least twice as deadly the 21st century's Sept. 11 terror attacks.

'It was the biggest loss of life in any kind of natural disaster that we've ever experienced in the United States," said Dr. Neil Frank, the former director of the National Hurricane Center and retired KHOU meteorologist.

In 1900, Galveston dominated the Texas coast serving not only as the state's most significant port, but also as a commercial hub with aspirations to become the Wall Street of the South. A lively tourist trade was served by bath houses on the beach and a trolley line running along the shore.

On the morning of September 8, 1900, the rising waters from the Gulf attracted little attention from anyone except children playing in what seemed like just another anomaly of life on a barrier island. But Isaac Cline, the head of the local weather service station, recalled noticing unusual wind and wave action coupled with rapidly declining barometric pressure. All day long, he monitored the conditions and sent warnings to Washington DC and in his memoirs he claims he rode a horse along the beach warning people to seek higher ground.

However, by nightfall, nowhere on the island seemed safe as much of the city was swallowed by a massive storm surge that shoved a huge wall of debris across most of the city. Cline's own home, supposedly built to withstand hurricane conditions, collapsed with dozens of people inside. One survivor recalled winds sounding like the cries of a thousand demons drowning out the screams of men, women and children.

Nobody knows how many people died in what people in Galveston came to call "The Great Storm of 1900," but the most conservative estimates roughly calculate the death toll at 6,000. So many corpses piled up in what used to be streets, bodies were weighed down and loaded onto barges that carried them out to sea. When the dismembered corpses began washing back onto shore, they were stacked into pyres and burned.

"And for days after the storm, that smell of dead flesh burning permeated the entire island," Frank said.

In the years after the storm, Galveston finally followed through on a long-discussed plan to build a seawall. Every building on the island was raised on jacks and the land beneath was filled with silt from Galveston Bay, effectively raising the level of the island.

Today, visitors driving toward the Gulf from the bay side of the island will notice that the land rises as it approaches what's now Seawall Boulevard, evidence of the mammoth engineering effort undertaken to protect Galveston the inevitable next great storm.

Thursday 10 September 2015


Post a Comment