As Terrible As Harvey Is, The Galveston Hurricane Of 1900 Was Much, Much Worse

  • Date: 28/08/17
  • Kevin Murnane, Forbes

Galveston hurricane killed thousands of Americans.

Hurricane Harvey makes landfall.

Hurricane Harvey is the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in the US since Hurricane Charley hit southwestern Florida in 2004. The damage and loss from Harvey won’t be known for several days but it is expected to be extensive. The hope right now is that the expectations are wrong and the destruction will be less than feared. But even if those hopes are crushed and Harvey turns out to be worse than expected, it won’t be as bad as the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

The Galveston Hurricane and Harvey are similar in many respects. Both were Category 4 hurricanes when they made landfall. Harvey’s sustained winds at landfall were 130 mph; Galveston’s are estimated to have been 145 mph. Harvey made landfall just north of Port Arkansas which is 171 miles as the crow flies southeast of Galveston. Both cities are on islands a few miles off the Texas coast.

One critical differences between the two hurricanes lies in what happened in the days after the storms hit. Galveston experienced sunny skies and a 20 mph wind the day after the storm. The storm continued overland to the west until it turned in a great horseshoe and exited the US through Michigan. Harvey has stalled out and is deluging eastern Texas with torrential rain, dangerous flooding, and tornadoes.

Harvey may look like the more dangerous hurricane on paper but the consequences of the Galveston Hurricane were much worse.

The city of Galveston was demolished when the hurricane struck on September 8, 1900. The highest points in the city when the hurricane hit ranged between seven and nine feet above sea level. The storm surge crested at 15 feet. The hurricane rolled over the island destroying everything in its path.

Homes were knocked off their foundations and either carried away or reduced to kindling and rubble. Thirty thousand people, almost the entire population of the city, were left homeless. The rest were dead.

The loss of life in Galveston was horrendous. The death toll is estimated between 6,000 and 12,000. The generally accepted total is 8,000 deaths but no one knows for sure. To gain some context, 1,836 people died as a result of Katrina in 2005. Eight thousand dead is more than the number of American deaths in the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. The Galveston Hurricane is the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States. […]

The difference between Harvey and the Galveston Hurricane

Why was the Galveston Hurricane so deadly? In a word – technology, or rather the lack of it. The communication and transportation infrastructure we take for granted wasn’t in place in 1900. Some people in Galveston had heard there was a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, but they didn’t know how big it was, where it was or where it was going. After the storm hit, people in the rest of the country didn’t know what had happened until two days later.

The Galveston Hurricane crossed over Cuba and entered the Florida Straits on September 5. Cuban forecasters predicted the storm would travel west but the US Weather Bureau disagreed and predicted it would turn northeast and travel up the US coast.

Having two markedly different predictions about the path of a hurricane is common today. What is different is that locating a hurricane in 1900 was largely a matter of guesswork and luck. There were no satellites or computer models. A storm couldn’t be tracked by air because there were no airplanes; the Wright Brother’s historic flight at Kitty Hawk didn’t occur until 1903. Hurricanes were only located when they passed over land or when a ship at sea happened to come across one. The ship’s information was always out of date because it couldn’t be reported until the ship reached land.

Credit: Wikipedia

Relief workers at what was once a street intersection.

Even if precise information about the hurricane’s path and strength were available, many people in Galveston probably would not have known it was coming. There was no internet or TV. The first commercial radio broadcast didn’t happen until 1920. There were telephones in east Texas but their use was limited. The first commercial telephone line in Galveston went live in 1877. It connected the telegraph office and the local newspaper. Galveston now had “instant news” – if the telegraph office received it, and the paper printed it, and people read it.

There’s no evidence that the local paper warned the inhabitants about the oncoming storm. The day before the storm arrived the Galveston Weather Bureau issued a hurricane warning in the form of two flags run up a flagpole over their office. There’s no evidence that anyone paid very much attention.

The hurricane took out all of the bridges and took down all of the telegraph lines connecting Galveston with the mainland. The city was completely cut off. The rest of the country didn’t learn about what had happened to Galveston until two days after the storm when messengers reached the telegraph office in Houston. The messengers brought with them an estimate that 500 people had died; the estimate was dismissed as probably exaggerated. Many people who were buried in the debris died during the following days before help arrived.

Government-funded research or the prevalence of social media can be easy targets for people with an ax to grind because it’s easy to lose sight of the forest when all you look at is a leaf on one of the trees. It’s good to keep in mind that without NOAA’s National Hurricane Center and National Weather Service the science of hurricanes would be less advanced and tracking hurricanes would be less accurate. Without the internet and social media, many people in a deadly hurricane’s path would be less well informed about what was heading their way and would not be as able to call out for help when disaster struck.

The cost of the damage wrought by Harvey may turn out to be much higher than the Galveston Hurricane. Property can be replaced, lives cannot. Without modern technology, Harvey could have surpassed Galveston as America’s most deadly natural disaster.

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