Most people know that Hurricane Katrina was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history. That storm was so destructive that the name “Katrina” was retired from the list of recurring names used by the National Weather Service to identify large storms. But as horrible as Katrina was, there is another storm in our national history that was even worse, especially in terms of lives lost.
In early September of the year 1900, the city of Galveston was packed with people from far and wide who were enjoying a late summer vacation at the seaside. This city is situated on a small island located about 2 miles off the coast of Texas, and at the time of the flood, the elevation was less than nine feet above sea level. The 29-mile length of Galveston Island faced the Gulf of Mexico, and its long sandy beaches attracted vacationers from mainland Texas every summer.
Galveston Disaster, Texas, 1900: house on Avenue N slightly moved with flood
In those days, sophisticated storm warning systems did not exist, but nevertheless there were some warnings about a large storm approaching the area. Ships at sea had encountered and reported the storm, and the hurricane had passed through parts of Florida, but damage to telegraph lines hindered communication. In addition to this, at that time there was no way of knowing where the storm was headed. Unfortunately, neither locals nor visitors heeded the alert — even after an official hurricane warning was issued — and most continued their holiday activities until it was far too late to flee. The Galveston Hurricane slammed into the island with a sudden fury, making land as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 145 mph.
Galveston Island in 1900 had no sea wall, and some natural flood barriers such as sand dunes had been removed to fill in low-lying areas inland. When this Cat-4 hurricane swept over the island, there was nothing in place to hold back the immense storm surge that was dragged in by the storm. This surge was so huge that it completely submerged a passenger train en route to Galveston, which had been stopped by debris on the tracks. All 85 people on board the train died when the seawater washed well over the roofs of the train cars. 10 people who had fled the train to a nearby lighthouse managed to survive.
On Galveston Island, a storm surge of at least 15 feet swept over the entire island. With a maximum elevation of less than 9 feet, this meant that even on the highest point there was no place of safety. Almost all the buildings on the island were simply knocked off their foundations and smashed to bits. Between 6,000-12,000 people died that day of September 8,1900, with no chance of help for the helpless survivors, many of whom were grievously injured. Because the bridges that linked Galveston to the mainland were washed away, it took some time for the scope of the disaster to become known. One of the earliest signs of the scale of the devastation was the discovery of a large ocean liner that had been washed more than two miles inland from Galveston.
When rescuers finally reached Galveston, they found that the city had been totally destroyed, and a full 20% of the island’s inhabitants had died. Many people who had survived the storm lay injured and buried under the mountains of debris, and died slowly of injury or thirst because rescuers were unable to reach them. The ghastly business of disposing of the thousands of bodies took many weeks, and exacted a severe psychological toll on those charged with collecting and burning the corpses. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains to this day the deadliest storm in U.S. history, and all the storms since then, if combined, have not yet equalled the loss of life from that one day.