Of High Winds and Rising Waters
How should we measure the costs of natural disasters? In terms of loss of life? Loss of property? Some combination thereof? What classifies an event as the worst in history?
We here in Houston are now making just those assessments due to the 35+ inches of rain dumped on us over a 48 hour period by Hurricane Harvey (flood pictures here) (and here) (and here). Our neighbors in Rockport are facing much more dire circumstances. Hurricane Harvey has meandered along the Texas coast leaving devastation in his wake. As I write this on the evening of August 29, much of the 10,062 square mile metro-Houston area is covered in water, including homes, office buildings, churches, stores, streets, and parts of every freeway and interstate rendering them impassible. The structures are still standing, but many are very waterlogged. Rockport has quite simply been torn apart and blown away. If there is any good news, it is that the loss of life is low considering the catastrophic nature of this event occurring in heavily populated areas. The limited loss of life is due in great part to the accurate information residents of the Texas Gulf Coast received via modern meteorological forecasting. People were told when to evacuate and they did. Those not ordered to evacuate because of the gargantuan difficulties of removing 6,800,000 people from the Houston metro area, followed instructions for recuse. While Harvey may ultimately prove to be the costliest weather event in US history in terms of property damage and loss, another storm may always hold the record as the “worst”.
In the first year of the 20th Century, Galveston, Texas was poised for greatness. There was talk of the town becoming the New York City of the South. It had a thriving port through which both goods and people poured into the state from around the world. Houston was an insignificant backwater by comparison. By September 9, 1900, the two towns’ circumstances and expectations would be reversed, Galveston’s bright future destroyed by a category 4 hurricane with 135-150 mph winds pushing a 15 foot wall of water.
The city of Galveston is on the eastern end of a long, narrow barrier island like so many lining the Texas coast. In 1900, it sat 16 feet lower than it does today and was not protected by 10 miles of 17 feet high seawall. In September 1900, a long hot summer was coming to its end. Families were enjoying the surf and sand. Prosperity was the order of the day. Galveston was one of the richest cities in Texas, boasting progressive medical care, beautiful Victorian homes, the Grand Opera House, electric lights and streetcars, and excellent restaurants and hotels. Life was good on Galveston Island. Confidence in the city’s future soared. Even the occasional tropical storm could not dampen spirits of the citizens and civic leaders.
Meteorology and weather forecasting was in its infancy, but one Galveston resident felt confident in the island’s ability to ride out any storm without harm. He had stated as much on several occasions and in published articles. His name was Isaac Cline, 38 year-old head of the Galveston Station of the US Weather Bureau and married father of three. According to Eric Larson, author of the 1999 bestselling Isaac’s Storm, Cline was so confident in Galveston’s invincibility that he failed to take into account the evidence of his senses, what was known about how seas and winds behaved as hurricanes approached land, and the storm history of the Texas coast. Instead, Larson posits that Cline relied solely upon the information provided by his primitive instruments, his training in science, and an unconscionable hubris.
NBC Today Show meteorologist, Al Roker, writing for HistoryNet, gives a different view. He shares much about the political climate within the US Weather Bureau in Washington and how it contributed to the extensive loss of life in 1900. Communications at the time were limited. Ships at sea had no ship-to-shore capability, so captains were unable to communicate their observations of the weather. Due to tensions following the Spanish-American War, the US Weather Bureau in Washington had cut off communications with Cuba, where meteorologists were more expert at predicting weather events. The US Weather Bureau had installations in the Caribbean, even in Havana. The US Bureau at its top levels felt threatened by and jealous of Cuban expertise, and therefore, resented the Cuban forecasters, going so far as to deny that their correct predictions were their own and blocking their attempts to communicate important warnings.
On September 4, 1900, a vicious hurricane descended on Cuba. The Cuban weathermen predicted the storm’s path into the Gulf and toward the Texas coast, but Willis Moore, Chief of the US Weather Bureau, issued a report stating that the storm was headed for south Florida. In his September 6, 8:00 a.m. cable to Isaac Cline, Moore declared the storm “not a hurricane”, that it had turned north, that Galveston would not be affected. This misinformation seems bizarre and brazenly foolish by today’s standards, but Moore was a man on a mission when he took over the bureau in 1895. He believed it needed a firm hand and centralized control. He declared that local weathermen would no longer issue warnings, that they would come instead from him based upon temperature, atmospheric, and wind conditions cabled to him by the local men. Moore’s clerks would aggregate the information and Moore would then tell local weathermen what the weather was in their locales. He even banned words like cyclone, typhoon, tornado, and hurricane because he believed there was too much scare mongering among his local men. His shortsightedness, monumental ego, and politically driven decision making set the stage for disaster.
All seemed normal on September 6 in temperature, barometric pressure, and other indicators. Cline cabled this information to Washington before going to bed believing what he had been told, that the storm that had hit Cuba was headed for Florida. The next morning, things changed. Washington ordered Cline to raise the hurricane warning flag atop the tall brick Levy Building where he had his office. Moore had finally discovered his mistake when stations in Florida, Savannah, and Charleston failed to report the conditions he had firmly predicted. By Friday afternoon, heavy swells began rolling in and conditions in Galveston indicated a storm was on its way. Moore, while admitting he had been wrong about the storm’s direction, still maintained that it was not a hurricane.
The morning of Friday, September 7, 1900, dawned hot, muggy, and overcast, but Galveston residents were not overly concerned even though the local newspaper had a small article on page three about a storm churning in the Gulf. Galveston had survived storms before and it would this time. Civic and political leaders had assured them of this for years. That is why the city had not built a seawall as some had urged in the past. Why spend money needlessly? Even as the wind rose, rain fell, and water began washing over Galveston’s beachfront streets, people did not board trains for the mainland nor did those close to the beach move to buildings in the city’s center.
Though a meteorologist like his brother, Joseph Cline, who worked with Isaac, was also very intuitive. He had a feeling throughout the day that something just wasn’t right. He and Isaac may have argued about this. At 4:00 a.m. Saturday, Joseph awoke with a start from a nightmarish dream of water rising around the house he shared with Isaac and his family. The house was three blocks from the beach. Joseph got out of bed and went to the window. His dream was reality. Water filled the front yard. The Gulf was rushing into the city in earnest by daylight.
According to Galveston legend and Isaac Cline’s memoir, at some point on September 8 Isaac went through the city on horseback and/or by horse drawn cart warning residents of low lying areas to evacuate. They did not heed the warning. Eric Larson contends that Cline did nothing of the kind. Instead, he believes Cline reassured his neighbors and fellow citizens that all would be well, that the city would hold fast. Whatever the truth, the citizens of Galveston were completely unprepared for what was about to descend upon them. At 3:30, Cline sent a cable to Washington, “Gulf rising rapidly. Half the city now under water.”
The night of September 8 and early hours of September 9 brought horrors that survivors would never be able to adequately describe. As the winds and water rose, houses and buildings were lifted from their foundations and then sent crashing down upon the occupants. Those who were able to get out into the open, found themselves in water 15 feet deep. Imagine clinging to a debris raft being pushed by 135 mph winds and pelted by rain while bumping against unseen objects submerged all around accompanied by the screams and cries of the desperate and dying. The sights and sounds of that night haunted many survivors until their deaths.
One of the most poignant stories to come out of the 1900 Hurricane is that of the 10 nuns and 93 children of St. Mary’s Orphans Asylum operated by the Sisters of Charity. As the waters rose and the winds howled ever louder, the nuns moved the children into the back rooms of the upper floors. They had the children sing “Queen of the Waves” (recording here) repeatedly in an effort to help them remain calm. When the two beach front buildings that made up the orphanage began rocking on their foundations, the nuns cut lengths of clothesline. Each nun tied the rope first around herself and then to nine children so that they would not become separated once the buildings fell. A search and rescue party pulled the bodies from under the sand still tied together. All of the nuns and all but three of the children perished.
As for Isaac Cline, he, his three daughters, and brother Joseph clung to a debris raft through the night and miraculously survived. Isaac’s pregnant wife and 18 of the fifty people who had taken refuge in the Clines’ new, sturdy brick home drowned. For three weeks, Isaac searched for his wife’s body. When she was finally found, it was beneath what was believed to have been the debris upon which Cline had floated. He never remarried. In 1901, the weather station was moved to New Orleans and Isaac went with it. He worked there until he retired in 1935. He died in New Orleans in 1955 at the age of 93.
The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed an estimated 6,000 in the city and another 4,000 to 6,000 on other parts of the island. Property damage at the time was estimated at $30 million, approximately $700 million in today’s dollars. The day after the storm, a committee to direct the recovery was elected and efforts began immediately, starting with the unmanageable number of dead. The mountains of debris that entombed the dead concealed a horrible secret. The cries of victims buried alive could be heard for days, but some were too deep to be reached despite all efforts to do so. The task of digging out was simply too great. Slowly, the cries ebbed and died away.
In just a few days, bodies pulled from the wreckage and sand began piling up. The need to deal with them became critical, so the corpses were loaded onto barges and dumped at sea. Burying them was not an option due to their great number. After the corpses floated back to shore, it was determined that bodies should be burned as they were found. The stretch of decaying and burning flesh hung over the island for months. The last body was not found until February. By then, the recovery was underway in earnest. Money poured in from donations across the country and some foreign countries. Clara Barton had arrived with workers on September 17 to aid in the relief efforts.
In addition to the immediate relief work, long range plans were made to protect the city from future storms. Between 1902 and 1904, a 17 foot high concrete seawall was constructed to prevent the type of flooding experienced during 1900. In December 1903, work began to raise the entire city by 16 feet. It was done in 16 block sections. Buildings that survived the storm, including the 3,000-ton St. Patrick’s
Church, where jacked up and sand dug from the bay was pumped beneath them. When the work was completed in 1910, 500 city blocks had been raised using 16.3 million cubic yards of sand. The plan was tested in 1915 when a storm of similar strength to 1900 hit. The seawall held the flood water back. The plan worked. The city was saved.
As a result of the 1900 devastation and the discovery of oil at Goose Creek near Houston, Galveston never regained her status as one of the richest cities in Texas and never became the New York of the South. Today, it is a resort community that hosts thousands of visitors for Mardi Gras, college students on Spring Break, and summer beach goers. When Galvestonians use the term “the storm” today, they are still referring to the Hurricane of 1900.
September 7, 2017
By now the waters have receded in all but the most damaged places and the recovery has begun in earnest. A final accounting for the Houston-metro area includes 56 inches of rain over a three day period, 70 dead, between $90-190 million in property loss depending on whose estimate is used, a temporary (hopefully!) 2 cm loss in height above sea level due to the earth’s crust being compacted by the water’s weight, and a community-wide belief that we are strong enough to overcome this present crisis and any that the future may hold. Our slogan has become #HoustonStrong!