September 8, 1900, Galveston Hurricane
The Hurricane of 1900, also known as the Great Galveston Hurricane, made landfall on September 8, 1900, in Galveston, Texas, in the United States. It had estimated winds of 145 miles per hour (233 km/h) at landfall, making it a Category 4 storm on the Saffirâ€“Simpson Hurricane Scale. It was the deadliest hurricane in US history, and the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history based on the dollar’s 2005 value (to compare costs with those of Hurricane Katrina and others).
The hurricane caused great loss of life with a death toll of between 6,000 and 12,000 people; the number most cited in official reports is 8,000. …
At the end of the 19th century, the city of Galveston, Texas, was a booming town with a population of 36,000 residents. Its position on the natural harbor of Galveston Bay along the Gulf of Mexico made it the center of trade and one of the biggest cities in the state of Texas. With this prosperity came a sense of complacency. …
At the time of the 1900 storm the highest point in the city of Galveston was only 8.7 feet (2.7 m) above sea level. The hurricane brought with it a storm surge of over 15 feet (4.6 m), which washed over the entire island. The surge knocked buildings off their foundations and the surf pounded them to pieces. Over 3,600 homes were destroyed and a wall of debris faced the ocean. The few buildings which survived, mostly solidly built mansions and houses along the Strand District, are today maintained as tourist attractions.
The highest measured wind speed was 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) just after 6 p.m., but the Weather Bureau’s anemometer was blown off the building shortly after that measurement was recorded. The eye passed over the city around 8 p.m. Maximum winds were estimated at 120 mph (190 km/h) at the time, though later estimates placed the hurricane at the higher Category 4 classification on the Saffirâ€“Simpson Hurricane Scale. The lowest recorded barometric pressure was 28.48 inHg (964.4 hPa), considered at the time to be so low as to be obviously in error. Modern estimates later placed the storm’s central pressure at 27.49 inHg (930.9 hPa), but this was subsequently adjusted to the storm’s official lowest measured central pressure of 27.63 inHg (935.7 hPa).
As severe as the damage to the city’s buildings was, the human toll was even greater. Because of the destruction of the bridges to the mainland and the telegraph lines, no word of the city’s destruction was able to reach the mainland. At 11 a.m. on September 9, one of the few ships at the Galveston wharfs to survive the storm, the Pherabe, arrived in Texas City on the western side of Galveston Bay. It carried six messengers from the city. When they reached the telegraph office in Houston at 3 a.m. on September 10, a short message was sent to Texas Governor Joseph D. Sayers and U.S. President William McKinley: “I have been deputized by the mayor and Citizen’s Committee of Galveston to inform you that the city of Galveston is in ruins.” The messengers reported an estimated five hundred dead; this was considered to be an exaggeration at the time.
The citizens of Houston knew a powerful storm had blown through and had made ready to provide assistance. Workers set out by rail and ship for the island almost immediately. Rescuers arrived to find the city completely destroyed. It is believed 8,000 peopleâ€”20% of the island’s populationâ€”had lost their lives. Estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000. Most had drowned or been crushed as the waves pounded the debris that had been their homes hours earlier. Many survived the storm itself but died after several days being trapped under the wreckage of the city, with rescuers unable to reach them. The rescuers could hear the screams of the survivors as they walked on the debris trying to rescue those they could. A further 30,000 were left homeless.
The dead bodies were so numerous that burying all of them was impossible. The dead were initially weighted down on barges and dumped at sea, but when the gulf currents washed many of the bodies back onto the beach, a new solution was needed. Funeral pyres were set up on the beaches, or wherever dead bodies were found, and burned day and night for several weeks after the storm. The authorities passed out free whiskey to sustain the distraught men conscripted for the gruesome work of collecting and burning the dead. More people were killed in this single storm than the total of those killed in all the tropical cyclones that have struck the United States since. This count is greater than 300 cyclones, as of 2009. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Looters in the aftermath were shot.
According to reports, at least 125 were shot for desecrating bodies of victims. Amateur photographers, according to the September 14, 1900 issue of the Dallas News, met the same fate:
Word received from Galveston today indicates that Kodak fiends are being shot down like thieves. Two, it is stated, were killed yesterday while taking pictures of nude female bodies.
If you were caught stooping [looting], you might be shot. There was one man that when they took him he had his pockets full of ears and fingers. He didn’t take time to take the earrings out of ears, he just cut a piece off. Of course by that time the fingers would be swollen. He just cut the fingers off and stuffed then in his pocket. He would have been shot, but his wife was pregnant and she begged for him. So they didn’t shoot him.