On Septemer 8, 1900, 8,000 Americans perished in the worst hurricane of the century, in a small town off the coast of Texas named Galveston. Here’s a map – the Galveston storm is the topmost track.
Given the worried eye I cast upon the fair city of New Orleans today, I thought a bit of historical fear-mongering was well called for.
The storm was recognized in advance, and the populace was warned, as I understand it. The storm’s ferocity was greater than anything that had been seen within living memory, and therefore these warnings were ineffective.
The personal account of Isaac Cline, the top U. S. Weather Bureau official on hand for the events is a good place to start. Sensitive readers please note: In the excerpts below, Mr. Cline recounts losing his wife and children to the storm.
“The public was warned,” he writes, recounting his interactions with the citizenry on the early afternoon of the 8th, “over the telephone and verbally, that the wind would go by the east to the south and that the worst was yet to come. People were advised to seek secure places for the night. As a result thousands of people who lived near the beach or in small houses moved their families into the center of the city and were thus saved. Those who lived in large strong buildings, a few blocks from the beach, one of whom was the writer of this report, thought that they could weather the wind and tide.”
He went to his home for a late lunch, and while there, his co-worker showed up.
“About 6:30 p.m. Mr. J. L. Cline, who had left Mr. Blagden at the office to look after the instruments, reached my residence, where he found the water neck deep. He informed me that the barometer had fallen below 29.00 inches; that no further messages could be gotten off on account of all wires being down, and that he had advised everyone he could see to go to the center of the city; also, that he thought we had better make an attempt in that direction. At this time, however, the roofs of houses and timbers were flying through the streets as though they were paper, and it appeared suicidal to attempt a journey through the flying timbers. Many people were killed by flying timbers about this time while endeavoring to escape to town.”
By eight o’clock things had taken a turn for the worse:
“By 8 p.m. a number of houses had drifted up and lodged to the east and southeast of my residence, and these with the force of the waves acted as a battering ram against which it was impossible for any building to stand for any length of time, and at 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered through being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child, who had gone down with myself and wife. Mr. J. L. Cline joined me five minutes later with my other two children, and with them and a woman and child we picked up from the raging waters, we drifted for three hours, landing 300 yards from where we started. There were two hours that we did not see a house nor any person, and from the swell we inferred that we were drifting to sea, which, in view of the northeast wind then blowing, was more than probable. During the last hour that we were drifting, which was with southeast and south winds, the wreckage on which we were floating knocked several residences to pieces.”
In the morning, the sun rose on a city that had literally been swept away.