As the sun rose to its height in Galveston on Sept. 7, 1900, it brought about another unbearably hot and humid day in what had already been an unbearably hot and humid summer.
Yet, the following day, a Saturday, brought relief. Low-hanging, black clouds began to build to the east and northeast, and a brisk, preternaturally cool breeze swept the island.
Delighted residents took to their verandas or headed down to the beach where heavy waves had begun to pound the shore. There was a sense of holiday in the air even as the surge began to swamp the island’s lowest-lying areas.
Few intuited the arriving peril, which later that day, amid ferocious wind and rain and cascading sea, would leave no fewer than 6,000 people dead, victims of what came to be known as the 1900 Storm.
The Galveston Daily News that Saturday morning had noted rain in the forecast — but offered no notion of what truly loomed. It did include an article reporting that the latest U.S. Census showed 8,000 people had moved to the island in the previous decade, an unknown number of whom were among the doomed.
It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that the newspaper regained its footing and attempted to describe the enormity of what had befallen the island.
The paper’s somber, grim account began with an acknowledgment that Galveston and the surrounding area had fallen victim to “one of the greatest catastrophes in the world’s history.”
“Words are too weak to express the horror, the awfulness, of the storm itself; to even faintly picture the scene of devastation, wreck and ruin, misery, suffering and grief,” an unnamed editor wrote. “Even those who were miraculously saved after terrible experiences, who were spared to learn that their families and properties have been swept away, spared to witness scenes as horrible as the eye of man ever looked upon — even those cannot tell the story.
“There are stories of horrible deaths, thousands of stories of individual heroism, stories of wonderful rescues and escapes, each of which at another time would be a marvel in itself and would command the interest of the world. But in a time like this, when a storm so intense in its fury, so prolonged in its work of destruction, so wide in its scope and infinitely terrible in its consequences has swept an entire city and neighboring towns for many miles on either side, the human mind cannot comprehend all of the horror, cannot learn or know all of the dreadful particulars. One stands speechless and powerless to relate even that which he has felt and knows. …
“The storm came not without warning, but the danger which threatened was not realized, not even when the storm was upon the city. Friday night the sea was angry. Saturday morning it had grown in fury and the wrecking of beach resorts began. The wind came at a terrific rate from the north. Still men went to their business and about their work, while hundreds went to the beach to witness the grand spectacle which the raging sea presented. As the hours rolled on the wind gained in velocity and the waters crept higher and higher. The wind changed from the north to the northeast, and the water came in from the bay, filling the streets. Men attempted to reach their homes in carriages, wagons, boats, afoot, in any way possible. …
“Still the wind increased in velocity, even after it seemed impossible that it should be more swift. It changed from east to southeast, veering constantly, calming for a second, and then coming with awful, terrific jerks, so terrible in their power that no building could withstand them, and none wholly escaped injury. The maximum velocity of the wind will never be known. The gauge at the weather bureau registered 100 miles an hour and blew away at 5:10 o’clock. But the storm at that hour was as nothing when compared with what followed and the maximum velocity must have been as great as 120 miles an hour. The most intense period and the most anxious time was between 8:30 and 9 o’clock. With a raging sea rolling around them, with a wind so terrific that none could hope to escape its fury, with roofs being torn away and buildings crashing all around them, men, women and children were huddled in buildings, caught like rats, expecting to be crushed to death or drowned in the sea, yet cut off from escape. …
“And all during the terrible storm acts of the greatest heroism were performed. Hundreds and hundreds of brave men, as brave as the world ever knew, buffeted with the waves and rescued hundreds and hundreds of their fellow men. …
Then, like that, the storm passed and the full scope of the horror came to light.
“Sunday morning came and bright sunshine fell upon a wrecked city,” the report continued. “Everywhere was wreck and ruin, everywhere was death and desolation. The streets were a tangle of debris, of broken timbers, brick and mortar, tangled wires and poles. Human bodies and the carcasses of animals lay all around. And yet the awfulness of the calamity was not felt. The mortality was estimated at 150 to 300; men put away the horrible thought that a greater number of their fellow men had perished. But every hour since then has brought fresh knowledge of the work of the storm, and estimates of the dead have passed into the thousands, until now it appears that the population of the city has been decimated.”
With the ground initially sodden, those charged with the grim task of disposing of the dead realized the bodies couldn’t immediately be buried, and immediacy was of the utmost given the decomposition all around as the summer’s awful heat returned.
Some bodies were sent out and buried at sea. In the calm after the storm, it was deemed that fires could be safely set with debris — the wreckage of a city — serving as fuel, and bodies were piled atop the pyres.
The gruesome work continued amid hope that help soon would arrive.
“Cut off from all rail communication, cut off from telegraphic communication, absolutely cut off from the outside world, the people of Galveston have gone ahead with their appalling task, confident that the world would come to their relief as speedily as possible,” the account continued. “Help is needed and needed quickly.”
The disaster spurred the building of the 17-foot-tall seawall, on which work began in 1902 and continued through 1963.
That, and vast improvements in hurricane prediction, have seen to it that such a toll has never recurred on the otherwise still vulnerable island.