A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History

A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History

Jennifer Conerly - July 1, 2017

Hurricane season: from June to November, that dreaded part of the year that Gulf Coast residents know so well. We stock our supplies, we track the storms on the closest device at hand, and we pray that it turns at the last minute and misses us, and praying for the people it will hit, silently hating ourselves in our own self-preservation. Modern-day technology has made as prepared as we can be: storm trackers, GPS, 24-hour weather coverage. At the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, storm tracking and meteorology were more of an art than a science, the early days of what we recognize today.

In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in the history of the United States hit Galveston, Texas, with a brutal force that left a path of death and destruction in its wake. In the aftermath of the storm, the people of Galveston banded together to remove the debris, rebuild what they had lost, and protect their home from a disaster like this ever happening again.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, Galveston grew into one of the largest cities in Texas. Entrepreneurs recognized the importance of creating a flourishing port in this location. They cleared out the port, creating a vital deep-water harbor between New Orleans and Mexico, becoming the starting point of a vibrant export trade that would stimulate the growth of the United States. Investing their money into Galveston’s industry and businesses, the city developed quickly. It became a major grain and cotton exporter by the end of the nineteenth century. The city was also technologically advanced, boasting Texas’s first streetlights, telephones, and electric-powered homes.

A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History
Beach Hotel, Galveston, 1890. Pinterest

As commerce and business grew, and the town flourished, Galveston became a mecca for the wealthy. With a population reaching almost 40,000, the “New York of the Gulf” was home to millionaires who enjoyed living the good life: they built beautiful homes, imported the best products, and frequented in the best hotels and restaurants. Galveston soon became known for recreational entertainment, such as carnivals, golf clubs, and rowing clubs. By the late 1800s, it had grown into a luxurious coastal resort with no signs of slowing down.

At this time, the tools used to track and measure weather conditions were primitive compared to how they are today. Storm tracking, especially over water, was impossible until ships could communicate with the shore, which wasn’t possible until after the Great Galveston Hurricane. In 1886, about one hundred miles away, the town of Indianola was destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane, so the people of Galveston knew the risks of intense tropical storms. So far, they had been lucky and had not suffered much damage. Still, the potential of what could happen still weighed on the community, and many residents were vocal about protecting the city with a seawall. The same year that Indianola was wiped out, the city rejected a plan to build a seawall, claiming it was pointless and expensive.

A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History
Issac Cline as a young man. U.S. National Archives

Throughout the 1890s, the wealthy investors ruined the shoreline that would naturally defend Galveston against a massive storm by constructing buildings, hotels, and homes on the beach. They thought they were investing in the city’s future, but they were contributing to its destruction. In September 1900, Galveston’s luck had run out. On September 8, Dr. Isaac Cline, the chief of the Galveston Weather Bureau, and his meteorologists compared information from the National Weather Service to the local conditions and realized that a massive hurricane was quickly approaching the area.

The National Weather Service advised the storm was going to turn, but Cline wasn’t convinced. He raised the alarm, but by then it was too late. Most of the citizens of Galveston did not listen to the warnings because the only sign that a storm was approaching was the high tide. Even if a storm was coming, everyone thought, it wasn’t going to be a bad one; it would be just like all of the ones they had weathered before.

A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History
Map of Galveston showing storm damage. Galveston and Texas History Center.

By the next morning, September 9, 1900, the Great Galveston Hurricane made landfall with winds of 145 mph. The strong Category 4 storm assaulted the island for more than 12 hours, destroying almost everything in its path. Some residents had left already, but the people who remained tried to find shelter where they could: in their homes, hospitals, hotels, and churches. As buildings broke apart, the winds transformed their broken pieces into flying missiles, splitting the next building apart, and so on and so on, until there was almost nothing left. By the time the storm had passed, over 6,000 people were dead, thousands more than that were injured, and most of the city was reduced to a pile of dead bodies and debris.

Many of the people of Galveston blamed Dr. Cline for what happened. In 1891, he wrote an article for the Galveston Daily News opposing the construction of a seawall because he didn’t think a major hurricane would ever hit the island. He tried to defend his reputation, claiming that as soon as he realized the danger, he warned people about the storm, telling visitors to leave and everyone who lived close to the water to find shelter in the larger buildings at the center of the town. No one came to his defense to confirm his story, and his role in the tragedy still stirs up considerable debate. Like everyone in Galveston, he lost a loved one: his wife, expecting their fourth child, died in the storm.

A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History
Twisted House. Wikimedia Commons

Less than a week after the storm passed, on September 14, 1900, The Galveston Daily News printed the following message to its people:

“The sorrows of the past few days are overwhelming and we all feel them and will continue to feel them so long as we live…wherever they sleep…we will love their memories and recall as long we live the unspeakable and mysterious tragedy which destroyed them. But it must be remembered that we have more than 30,000 living, and many of these are children too young to have their lives and energies paralyzed by the disaster which has overtaken us. Our homes must be rebuilt, our schools repaired, and the natural advantages of the port must sooner or later receive our earnest attention. We have loved Galveston too long and too well to desert her in the hour of misfortune…We must look to the light ahead.”

A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History
A “dead gang” gathers bodies for burning. Library of Congress

Looking to that light among such devastation was difficult. Almost every building was decimated. The stench of dead bodies was suffocating. There were too many corpses, and the ground was too saturated to bury them. The safest option was to weigh them down and dump them into the sea, but the bodies quickly came back ashore. To prevent the outbreak of disease, they had to be burned.

As the people of Galveston began to rebuild, they realized that they could no longer live in their city without the safety of a seawall. In November 1901, a group of engineers gathered to make a plan on how to build the seawall and raise the city to prevent the massive flooding in the event of another massive hurricane. The people of the city decided to invest money into it again: not to build it, but to protect it, and they did it without any government assistance.

Mother Nature is always unpredictable: the disaster of 1900 was just the beginning. The seawall has proved over and over again to have been worth the time, money, and resources: it saved Galveston from severe damage during the hurricane that struck in 1915, Hurricane Carla in 1961, and Hurricane Alicia in 1983. Although the repairs prevented a repeat of the 1900 tragedy, Galveston never recovered the elite status it enjoyed before the disaster. Many of the entrepreneurs pulled out after the storm and invested their money in Houston, which turned it into the metropolitan area it is today.

Although Galveston’s star has faded, we cannot overlook its importance. The Great Galveston Hurricane is the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history, claiming over 6,000 lives, although that number could be as high as 12,000. The only storm in recent memory that compares is Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which claimed almost 2,000 lives, making it the third deadliest hurricane in U.S. history. The disaster of 1900 is also important to the development of meteorology and storm preparation.

New technologies developed, which led to new ways of tracking storms, to prevent another Galveston from happening again. Evacuation protocols and emergency planning are a way of life during hurricane season on the Gulf Coast. Today, as we watch the forecasted track of the next storm headed our way, we see the results of those developments that have saved countless lives over the years, a lesson learned from the thousands lost at Galveston in 1900.