1900 hurricane was catastrophic in Galveston

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It was the best of times, and -- in a single day -- it became the worst of times.

Galveston was in its heyday as a city of wealth and refinement, successfully battling for dominance over neighboring Houston when the tides turned on Sept. 8, 1900 -- the day of the Great Storm.

A hurricane swept out of the Gulf of Mexico after days of building strength in the Atlantic Ocean and devastated the island city. At first the rains came, then the wind. As their intensity grew, the waters rose, flooding buildings to the second- and third-story levels. Entire neighborhoods and their inhabitants were washed away.

But residents of the sophisticated city who survived the nation's worst natural disaster -- a dubious distinction the storm has held for 100 years -- clawed through the mountain of debris and showed their true grit.

They took care of their dead -- an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 or more -- constructed a 17-foot seawall and rebuilt the city, pumping in sand to raise the island's height several feet.

Unlike nearby Indianola, which never recovered after two hurricanes hit it within a dozen years in the 1800s, Galveston rose like the mythical phoenix to new life.

And now, the city and Texans are poised to remember the terrible storm of a century ago.

The commemoration will be Sept. 8-10, and events planned for it are a far cry from the observance 50 years ago.

"In 1950, there was a one-line mention in the newspaper about the anniversary of the storm. There was no commemoration back then. It was still too painful," says Mike Doherty, who is leading the citywide observance of the anniversary.

This September, "We want to focus on the rebirth of the city," he says.

Weekend events open to the public include a candlelight ecumenical memorial service at the Kermit Courville Stadium (the Friday night football game was changed to Saturday) with keynote address by Texas-born TV news anchor Dan Rather, the dedication Saturday of a monument on Seawall Boulevard, parties planned throughout the city Saturday night, and open houses at museums and other institutions on Sunday.

The weekend culminates a Year of Remembrance, which began last Sept. 8 when commemoration plans were unveiled at a luncheon. Featured speaker was Erik Larson, author of the newly published "Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History," which details the storm through the experiences of Isaac Cline, then chief of the Galveston weather office.

During the last year, a logo has been designed, exhibits have opened, books have been published and merchandise is being sold.

The Great Storm was not the Perfect Storm. Neither was it the fiercest. It didn't even have a name -- no hurricane did in those days. But on this pancake-flat island, the destruction was catastrophic.

Chartered in 1839, Galveston occupies a sliver of land 32 miles long and 1-½ to 3 miles wide, about 2 miles off the Texas mainland and 50 miles southeast of Houston. From 1840 to 1870, the city was a major immigration port -- second to New York's Ellis Island -- for more than a quarter-million Europeans. The Strand was nicknamed the Wall Street of the Southwest.

Fortunes were made in cotton, banks, mercantile houses, publishing and printing, flour and grain mills, railroads, land development and shipping.

On Sept. 8, 1900, Galvestonians awoke to high tides and scattered rain, but the brick-dust sky typical of stormy weather was not in evidence, weatherman Cline reported.

As the day progressed, however, Cline realized the danger and rode along the beachfront warning people to go to higher ground, he later said.

The problem was, higher ground was scarce. The city's highest spot, around 14th Street and Broadway, was less than 9 feet above sea level.

By 6:15 p.m., the storm ripped the wind gauge off the E.S. Levy Building, where the weather service was headquartered, but not before it had recorded gusts in excess of 100 mph. It's estimated the winds reached at least 120 mph. The tidal surge, which struck the south shore around 7:30 p.m., has been estimated at between 15 and 20 feet high.

According to today's criteria, the wind speed would classify the storm as a Category 3 hurricane, but the tidal surge would make it a Category 4 (a 5 is the most severe hurricane).

Houses, washed from their foundations, crashed into other houses, wiping out entire neighborhoods. The wind drove debris northeasterly, creating a wall about two stories tall. The mass of drowned homes, humans and animals formed a barrier that protected structures on the city's north side.

A Wal-Mart Superstore now stands where 10 Catholic sisters and 93 children from the St. Mary's Orphans Asylum, operated by the Sisters of Charity, huddled on the second floor of the girls' dorm singing the French song "Queen of the Waves." As the situation worsened, the sisters tied themselves to the children with clothesline to keep all together. As the tide swept over them, three boys swam to safety. All of the others perished.

A historical marker near 69th Street and Seawall Boulevard in front of the Wal-Mart recounts the loss, and every Sept. 8, the Sisters of Charity, wherever they are in the world, sing "Queen of the Waves" in remembrance, says Linda Macdonald, a member of the 1900 Storm planning committee.

Around midnight on Sept. 8, 1900, under a bright moon, the winds calmed and the water receded. As day dawned, survivors found horrors and destruction.

"Four-fifths of the city is destroyed, so you can imagine what a ruin it is; half of the survivors have nothing left, and the others have lost so much that we are all poor people," Mrs. John Focke wrote on Sept. 11 to her daughters in Europe.

In the city of about 38,000, as many as 8,000 people died and about 8,000 more were left homeless. By comparison, Hurricane Camille in 1969 claimed 256 lives in Mississippi and Louisiana and Hurricane Andrew killed 23 people in Florida and Louisiana in 1992.

More than 3,600 buildings were destroyed, but hundreds weathered the hurricane and are eligible to apply for a plaque from the Galveston Historical Foundation designating them as storm survivors. About 250 buildings already have qualified for the designation.

"We have a pretty good representation of the properties," says Samantha Bosshart, program assistant for the foundation.

One of the nation's biggest concentrations of Victorian houses, the East End Historical District, survived the storm relatively undamaged.

Officials from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration presented the first centennial 1900 Storm Survivor marker to the Levy Building at 23rd and Market streets in February.

At first, storm survivors tried to bury victims' bodies, but there were just too many. Then they took them out to sea, with weights, but the bodies washed ashore. Finally, they burned the dead in funeral pyres.

City officials stepped in to deal with the devastation. All capable men were required to work, and looting was swiftly punished.

"We are under martial law, and the few soldiers who were not drowned are simply shooting down all idlers; last night they shot 17," Mrs. Focke wrote.

Rebuilding began. The great-grandparents and grandmother of Mike Doherty, commemoration committee chairman, started anew. They "built another house not too far away out of debris. The city let you do that," Mr. Doherty says.

Ms. Macdonald's great-grandfather owned a bakery at 2224 Winnie Ave. and had the only commercial oven in town, she says. After the storm, he baked bread night and day to help feed survivors.

Worldwide attention -- and desperately needed help -- came to Galveston. Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, personally directed the relief effort. Three weeks after the storm, the Thomas Edison Co. shot newsreel footage in the city -- Texas' beginning in the film industry. (Copies of the movie are being sold during the commemoration.) Even more telling are the images in "The Great Storm," a 27-minute documentary program presented at Pier 21.

Interest in the hurricane surged last fall with the release of Larson's book. The author accuses Cline of not taking the storm seriously enough and disputes the extent and impact of his warnings on the beach.

But Cline has his defenders.

"We always thought of him as a Paul Revere of sorts, not a villain," says Macdonald.

Despite diverging views, she says she appreciates "Isaac's Storm" and its success.

"The book has contributed to awareness," she says. "It has generated interest, curiosity, overwhelming awe and disbelief of all of the death and destruction."

Casey Greene, head of special collections at the Rosenberg Library, does not view Cline as a Paul Revere, but disagrees with Larson's assessment.

"Cline was a victim of complacency, of never having experienced a storm of this magnitude," says Greene. "Galveston didn't take storm threats seriously, and Galveston paid the price. He was the sacrificial lamb for the effects of a major hurricane on a modern city."

Cline went on to an illustrious career with the weather service, which made him chief meteorologist of its office in New Orleans. He retired in 1935 after 53 years as a weatherman.

Greene believes attitudes haven't changed all that much.

"We feel that we can harness nature's forces," he says. "We think we can push the envelope, but it pushes back."

"Isaac's Storm" is not the only book about the disaster.

Among them is "Through a Night of Horror: Voices From the 1900 Galveston Storm," in which Greene and Shelly Henley Kelly have compiled survivors' letters, memoirs and oral histories. It was just released by Texas A&M University Press.

Greene and Kelly, assistant archivist at the Rosenberg Library, work on the third floor in the Galveston and Texas History Center, the nation's main repository for materials about the storm.

In 1902, Galveston residents began one of the greatest engineering feats of the century. They built a 3-mile-long 17-foot-tall protective seawall from 6th Street to 39th Street. The federal government paid to have the barrier extended to 45th street so it would protect Fort Crockett. In later years, the wall was lengthened to 61st Street and then to its present ending at 103rd Street. After the original section of the seawall was completed, the city's elevation was raised an average of 5 feet and as much as 15 feet. More than 2,200 buildings were jacked up and sand pumped under them to lift them above future storms' waters.

While Galveston was busy rebuilding, Houston surged ahead in importance. Galveston lacked transportation links; a causeway was not opened until 1912. The inauguration of the Houston Ship Channel in 1908 gave Houston a distinct advantage in this tale of two cities.

Although Houston overtook it, Galveston survived the storm with panache. In 1911, the Galvez Hotel opened on the Seawall, a location it still occupies in carefully maintained splendor.

That same year, Gaido's seafood restaurant opened. Patrons are still hooked on its fresh Gulf fish.

"The Galvez's opening showed that we weren't going to just repair the city," says Doherty. "It said, 'We're back.'"

And it was and still is -- in a different manner. Within the last couple of decades, the Galveston Historical Foundation has saved many of its architectural jewels. The park board of trustees has worked hard to regenerate Galveston's beach, ordering sand hauled in to counter years of erosion. Festivals such as Dickens on the Strand at Christmas and the pre-Easter Mardi Gras become more popular each year. Houston residents drive down in hordes on the weekend to escape the bustle of the bigger city.

Galveston today is one of the state's most popular tourist destinations.

A couple of weeks after the commemoration celebration, Carnival Cruise Lines will begin sailing out of Galveston on four- and five-day trips. And Royal Caribbean International will test the market with seven-day trips out of Galveston next year.

Once again, the times are pretty good.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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