Galveston's Day of Infamy

Galveston's Day of Infamy

"Red sky at night sailors delight; red in the morning, sailor take warning."

Old mariners' adage

At the beginning of the 20th century, Galveston, Texas, was already a major deepwater port. Steamers, freighters, and sailing ships regularly docked at its wharves. The city was bustling, wealthy, and proud, boasting a population of over 25,000 people. The beaches were lined with substantial homes of merchants, and along lush, tree—lined boulevards stood the ornate mansions of the rich. There were numerous large churches, an orphanage, a convent, hospitals, an army fort, and many public buildings. Galveston was definitely a city on the move, and many believed it was destined to be the most important city in the South.

But Galveston had a problem. Its ideal location as a deepwater port was on a barrier island that partitioned Galveston Bay from the Gulf of Mexico. The island is only three miles wide with an elevation of less than 20 feet at its highest point. Galveston lay ominously exposed. The city had been subjected to hurricanes during the previous century, but rebuilding had kept it up—to—date.

On the pleasant afternoon of September 7, 1900, Galveston was still playing host to many people who sought to escape the summer heat of the nation's interior by vacationing along the Gulf Coast. No one in Galveston imagined that within 24 hours the city would be almost completely destroyed, a victim of one of America's worst storm disasters. Sailors were reporting that their ships had come through "sheer hell." Somewhere out there was a storm of gigantic proportions. Weather officials in Galveston knew on September 1 of a hurricane in the eastern Caribbean. But the first official telegraph from Washington, D.C., was not received until 4 p.m. on September 4. It said simply that a tropical disturbance was moving northward across Cuba. In those days, before the time of aircraft patrols, radar, and satellites, following a storm was impossible.

On September 7, chief forecaster Isaac Cline and others at the weather bureau noted the falling barometer, a change in wind speed, the rapidly rising humidity, and the change in sea waves beating on the Galveston beaches. Then, acting on information circulated by the weather bureau, the local newspaper published a forecast for the next day: hurricane. Almost everyone ignored the forecast. In fact, many people took excursion trains to the city.

On September 8, a Saturday, a large number of sight—seers arrived, attracted by the raging surf. Cline climbed to the roof of the weather office and hoisted storm—warning flags. Convinced that his city was lying in the path of the first hurricane of the new century, he headed for the beach area to warn the people to move immediately to higher ground. Again his warnings were ignored.

As Saturday afternoon wore on, conditions grew worse. Hurricane flags were snapping in the wind and ripping from their masts. Yet people thrilled to the sight of enormous waves that arced up out of the sea and fell on the beach with a thunderous roar; a few daring souls splashed about in the surf.

A regular beach attraction was the Pagoda, a structure shaped like an oriental temple that covered about two blocks. The crowd watched amazed when the waves effortlessly demolished it in front of their eyes. The great building sank into the water and in minutes became a disordered mass of floating timbers. Finally people began to recognize the severity of the storm and raced for shelter.

The waves first surged onto the houses at the beach, splintering them and shoving debris inland. Then they gushed into the street, lifting and breaking house after house. Soon the entire city was racing away from the shore. Keeping close together, crowds of people herded toward the middle of the city as the wind speed rose to 120 miles per hour.

Those who ran before the wind faced a new terror. Darkness was all around now, and they could not see the deadly slabs of slate that flew through the screaming air. After the great Galveston fire of 1885, city fathers had recognized the value of slate roofs to halt the spread of fire and make their city safe. They had rewritten the building code to make wooden roofs illegal. Now these stone slabs, torn off roofs, were as deadly as meat cleavers.

When the water first crept into houses, people retreated to the upper floors. As the waters continued to rise the people ran out of floors to ascend to. After he retreated into his home with his family, one survivor related, the house started to shudder as a battering ram of huge timbers from wrecked houses crashed against the walls. The building began to come apart, slowly at first. Then with great suddenness it disintegrated and collapsed into the churning waters.

Gigantic waves ripped away wharves and set ships loose to drift helplessly before the onslaught of wind and waves. Occasional flashes of lightning revealed the eerie picture of huge oceangoing steamers wallowing in a mass of floating houses. Other ships hit rocks and sank immediately, with a heavy loss of life among the crews. Some ships were pushed so far inland that when the storm ended, they were sitting in the middle of Galveston or in a farmer's field.

In the face of 120—mile winds, chimneys flew apart, church steeples collapsed, brick walls disintegrated. Refugees clinging half—drowned to the wreckages of their houses were mauled by the storm or buried in cascades of bricks and wooden debris. Waves washed people off roofs, while tossing beams knocked children out of the grip of parents. Swimmers gave up and sank beneath the waves. The air was filled with flying debris, the howling noises of the winds, and the terrified screams of the dying.

One man rode out the storm by climbing inside a handy barrel. He was able to secure the lid so that the barrel was watertight. All night, as he bounced on the waves, he could hear the wind, feel objects hitting his barrel, hear the screams of drowning people. Another family survived by tying themselves in a tree. Trapped by water and waves they climbed a tall tree near their house and lashed themselves to the trunk. All night hurricane winds swayed the tree, cracking off limbs and ripping off most of their clothes. When the water subsided wind—driven sand flayed their skin. The entire family became ill from swallowing so much saltwater. They were among the fortunate few who survived being tied to a tree. Most others were drowned as the water rose over them or were cut to ribbons by flying objects.

Bolivar Lighthouse offered refuge from the storm. A virtual mob crowded into the lighthouse to take shelter in the tall structure with heavy stone walls. People crammed in on top of other people and, on the steps of the spiral staircase, sat several deep on the laps of those already seated. After the last person got in, the heavy door at the foot of the stairs was closed. Waters quickly rose around the base of the lighthouse and the door was soon deep under water. It was pitch—black inside. Sitting in cramped positions for hours, many suffered from muscular pains, and the air became foul. People sobbed and became maddened by their pain and tormented by their thirst. Many wished they were dead.

All survived the ordeal. When the waters receded, they opened the door and ran into the sunlight. The first sight to greet them was a mass of dead bodies that lay all around the base of the lighthouse.

The Ursuline Convent, a large stone and brick structure, covered four city blocks. Around the convent was a 10—foot—high brick wall that protected the convent buildings throughout much of the storm. When the wall finally crumbled, water rushed through as it would through a broken dam, carrying in cargoes of trees, crates, rooftops, corpses—and living humans. The nuns immediately went to work to rescue them. Leaning from windows and using poles, they dragged people inside. One woman about to give birth when the storm started had managed to get into a large trunk that carried her bobbing up and down over the raging waves. She eventually floated to the convent where the nuns pulled her in through a window. She immediately gave birth to one of eight infants delivered in the convent that night.

Another man rescued by the nuns was stark naked. One nun gave him a habit to wear; dressed as a nun, he immediately went to work. A few dazed people were puzzled by the bearded nun helping them. One hurricane victim was even more astonished—it was his wife, who had thought he was dead. He, in turn, had thought she was dead.

Protected during the worst of the hurricane by the surrounding wall, the Ursuline Convent, though heavily damaged, survived, as did those lucky enough to have been rescued by the nuns. Not too far away, the Old Women's Home caved in.

As rapidly as the great Galveston hurricane had built to a climax, it retreated. After midnight the winds began to die down, and by dawn they had lessened considerably. When the sun rose there was only a stiff breeze—and a scene of utter devastation. Half of the buildings in Galveston were completely destroyed; almost none had escaped heavy damage. Amid ruined, smashed houses lay the pilings of broken bridges, smashed boxcars, ships, telephone poles and wires, dead animals, and thousands of corpses. No contact could be made with the world beyond Galveston. There was no immediate way to build a fire or cook a meal, and no water to drink.

Within a few days the rest of the country began to respond, and into the stricken city came all manner of help, including martial law. A most urgent problem was disposal of the dead, which were literally everywhere. The stench of thousands of decaying bodies eventually made breathing almost impossible. To avoid such epidemics as often follow a disaster, officials decided to dump the corpses at sea. Although thousands of people wanted to identify their dead relatives and friends, the need to dispose of them was immediate. So the bodies were loaded onto channel barges, towed to sea, and dumped. Unfortunately corpses float. The wind blew them right back to Galveston. From piles of broken boards, workers built pyres on which to burn the corpses that washed back on land. For the survivors this was the ultimate agony.

By official count as many as 8,000 people died in the terrible hurricane. This is by far the largest death toll in a U.S. national disaster.

Nothing comparable has happened in the United States before or since. Not even in Galveston. Within a few years a seawall was built, so massive and strong that no hurricane of the future could devastate the city. Nor did the city want to skulk behind a high, prisonlike barricade. The entire city was raised to the level of the 17— to 20—foot wall. Since then the residents have been able to look down on a less—threatening sea. Nevertheless, when they hear warning of a major hurricane, the citizens turn toward the continent across Galveston Bay and head inland.

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning