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This movie shows a physics-based computer simulation of the wind and storm surge associated with the September 1900, Galveston Hurricane. This storm left some 12,000 dead and Galveston ruined. The event still stands as America’s worst natural disaster.
The Smithsonian Channel has a show called, “Perfect Storms”. I present to you Season 1, Episode 3.
Galveston Hurricane 1900 – Film: Thomas A. Edison – Music: Tom Rush
On September 8, 1900, the deadliest hurricane in US history made landfall at Galveston, Texas. Winds reached a speed of 145 miles per hour, killing between 6,000 and 12,000 individuals out of Galveston’s population of 37,000. On September 24, Thomas A. Edison sent a film crew to Galveston to record the aftermath of the storm, and part of that film is what you’re seeing here. The song, “Wasn’t that a Mighty Storm,” was written sometime later. The lyrics mention a seawall, but Galveston didn’t build a seawall until after the 1900 hurricane, and whoever wrote the song didn’t know that.
On September 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane ripped through Galveston, Texas, killing an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people. At the time of the 1900 hurricane, Galveston, nicknamed the Oleander City, was filled with vacationers. Sophisticated weather forecasting technology didn’t exist at the time, but the U.S. Weather Bureau issued warnings telling people to move to higher ground. However, these advisories were ignored by many vacationers and residents alike. A 15-foot storm surge flooded the city, which was then situated at less than 9 feet above sea level, and numerous homes and buildings were destroyed. The hurricane remains the worst weather-related disaster in U.S. history in terms of loss of life.
Galveston, Texas: Background
Galveston, first visited by French and Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, is located on Galveston Island, a 29-mile strip of land about two miles off the Texas coast and about 50 miles southeast of Houston. The city, which was named in the late 18th century for the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez (1746-86), was incorporated in 1839 and is linked to the mainland by bridges and causeways. Galveston is a commercial shipping port and, with its warm weather and miles of beaches, has also long been a popular resort.
Galveston Hurricane: September 8, 1900
On September 8, a Category 4 hurricane ripped through Galveston, killing an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people. A 15-foot storm surge flooded the city, which was then situated at less than 9 feet above sea level, and numerous homes and buildings were destroyed.
After the hurricane, a large seawall was eventually built to protect Galveston from flooding. The city was pummeled again by major hurricanes in 1961 and 1983, but they caused less damage than the one that struck in 1900.
National Weather Service and Hurricane Names
In 1953, the U.S. National Weather Service, which tracks hurricanes and issues advisories, started giving storms female names in order to help scientists and the public follow them. Beginning in 1979, men’s names were also used. The World Meteorological Organization assigns one name for each letter of the alphabet, with the exception of Q, U and Z. The lists of names are reused every six years; however, when a hurricane is especially deadly or costly its name is retired and a new name is added to the list. In 2006, “Katrina,” along with four other names from the 2005 hurricane season, was taken out of service. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast states in August 2005, was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Never mind that Ike ended up a Category 2 hurricane, not the cataclysmic killer that was predicted. In Galveston, it was bad.
Not even two days ago, what are now piles of debris were people’s homes, their belongings – smashed by winds up to 110 mph, dumped by a storm surge 13-15 feet high.
Ike is a stern reminder that storms happen, in spite of all the 21st century weather technology, in spite of all the dire warnings to evacuate.
The National Weather Service didn’t mince words: Of Galveston they said, “Persons not heeding evacuation orders in single-family one- or two-story homes will face certain death.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was also admonishing: “Our nation is facing what is, by any measure, a potentially catastrophic hurricane. It’s not a time again to play chicken with the storm or to take risks with the storm.”
But people did just that, even though a good twelve hours before Ike actually hit much of Galveston Island was already flooded. Of the city’s population of 57,000, by some estimates 40% stayed.
On Friday afternoon, knowing full well what was coming, thrill seekers stood on the 17-foot sea wall as waves crashed over the monument to the Great Storm of 1900 which Galveston had no idea was headed its way.
“Clearly it ranks, at least in terms of death toll, as the number one most lethal hurricane in history,” said Erik Larsson, author of the 1999 bestseller “Isaac’s Storm.” “In fact, [it’s] the single most lethal natural disaster in U.S. history.”
The Category Four hurricane killed at least 6,000 people, possibly as many as 12,000. There were 150-mile-an-hour winds and a 16-foot storm surge.
In “Isaac’s Storm,” Larsson recounted the true story of how Isaac Cline, head of the local weather bureau, failed to predict it, and the tragic consequences when it made landfall.
A cascade of errors, of unexpected things, came together so that this monumental storm arrived essentially by surprise.
The before-and-after pictures are startling: Galveston had been rich and cocky, sure it was about to become the New York of the South. The hurricane ended its grand ambitions forever.
In an interview marking the 100th anniversary of the storm, Larsson said, “If there are poor choices for where to put a city, Galveston Island probably ranks close to number 1.”
Since 1900, eight more significant hurricanes have battered Galveston, in 1915 and again in 1943. There was Carla in 1961, Fern in 1971, Alicia in 1983, Rita in 2005, and Humberto last year.
And now Ike (ironically, a nickname for Isaac).
(Left: Debris surrounds damaged aircraft and hangars at Scholes Field on Galveston Island after the passing of Hurricane Ike, Sept. 13, 2008.
Isaac Cline became obsessed with improving hurricane forecasting so the horror of 1900 would never be repeated.
As soon as Ike’s winds died down yesterday, the Coast Guard began picking up people by the hundreds who chose to stay in Galveston and push their luck in spite of ample warning.
Galveston residents Codie and Katy also rode out the storm. They felt pretty lucky, even though they “lost everything.”
… Everything except their lives. That’s the difference between Isaac’s storm and Ike.