- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

GALVESTON, Texas Among natural calamities, it became the benchmark.

One hundred years ago tomorrow, on the afternoon and evening of Saturday, Sept. 8, one of the most powerful hurricanes of the century roared out of the Gulf of Mexico. It caught the thriving port city of Galveston napping.

In a few hours of horror, an estimated 6,000 of Galveston's 37,700 residents perished, as did an estimated 2,000 more elsewhere.

"It still stands as America's worst recorded natural disaster," noted Casey Greene of the Rosenberg Library's Texas History Center in Galveston, co-author of the book "Through a Night of Horrors."

The city was reduced to splinters by fierce winds and the deadly tidal surge they brought. At least 3,600 buildings were destroyed.

This weekend, the city will observe the centennial of its tragedy with several events.

Galveston still represents to weather forecasting what Pearl Harbor represents to military intelligence. There were clear warnings of danger that were misread or ignored.

In 1900, Galveston was the nation's third-busiest port and the leading cotton port. It was engaged in a fierce rivalry with nearby Houston for dominance along the Gulf coast.

The city had weathered hurricanes in 1875 and 1891. It was believed invulnerable, even though it was only 8.7 feet above sea level. Isaac M. Cline, chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau's Texas office in Galveston, had dismissed the idea of a catastrophic hurricane as an "absurd delusion."

"Why so many died here was complacency," Mr. Greene said. "The storm surge was twice as big as the 1875 surge, which was 8 feet; in 1900 it was 15.7 feet. They decided this storm would not be any worse than 1875. By the time they learned otherwise, it was too late.

"Nobody knows how many died," he said. "Our best guess is 8,000. You have to take into account the transient population during the summer, plus, the African-American community was under-represented in the victims' tally because of racial segregation."

Could another Galveston happen today? Hurricane Mitch killed an estimated 13,000 in Central America in 1998.

"The perception is that we can never have a large loss of life like Galveston in this day and age, and that disturbs me," said Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "The technology certainly has advanced. We have color satellite images, radar maps, aircraft data and vastly improved computer models. But the truth is that the average 24-hour track forecast is 100 miles. That means we could predict that a hurricane would hit the city of Galveston and it could hit 100 miles up or down the coastline.

"One of my greatest fears," he said, "is that we'll have thousands of people stuck in their cars in a traffic jam while trying to evacuate when the core of a major hurricane strikes, like the Galveston hurricane or Hurricane Andrew."

An almost identical assessment came from Bill Massey, hurricane program manager for Atlanta-based Region 4 of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

"Storm-surge deaths in the last few years have been minimal along the coasts," he said. "A lot of people think we have resolved the storm-surge issue and the death issue, but we have not. We've been very fortunate that Mother Nature has allowed us to dodge bullets.

"We have so many people moving to the coasts, and we have tremendous potential for loss of life unless people respond to warnings. The population just isn't taking it seriously."

He conceded that if a disaster of the magnitude of Galveston did occur, "We [FEMA] couldn't deal with that kind of loss of life. We're better prepared than ever before, but we've got a long way to go."

Like this summer in Texas, the summer of 1900 was extraordinarily hot. Triple-digit temperatures baked the East Coast. The unnamed storm formed west of Africa on Aug. 27. It swept the length of Cuba Sept. 3-5.

U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologists in Cuba, then under U.S. military occupation following the Spanish-American War, reported that the storm was veering north across Florida and toward the Atlantic but did not pose a major threat. Their more hurricane-savvy Cuban counterparts insisted the storm was gaining in intensity and was heading into the Gulf toward Texas. They were ignored.

The day before the disaster, barometric pressure actually rose at Galveston, providing a false sense of security. But the next morning, unusual swells pounded the beaches, while a powerful north wind pushed water from Galveston Bay into the city, flooding streets.

Still, the city seemed oblivious. Children played merrily in the flooded streets, and hundreds of spectators watched spectacular breakers smash against beachfront buildings. Only some seasoned seamen, alarmed by the sky's weird hues, and some intuitive housewives sensed impending disaster.

When the wind ripped the roof off a popular restaurant at lunchtime, killing five diners in the ensuing collapse, amusement turned to fear. The storm struck the coast about 2 p.m. at a 90-degree angle, while the eye passed just west of the city the ultimate worst-case scenario for both tidal surges and winds.

People huddled in the upstairs rooms of houses of relatives, friends or total strangers to escape the rising waters, praying for deliverance, only to have the houses collapse or wash away. Parents prioritized their children as to which they would try to save first. People caught outside were killed by hurtling debris.

Among those lost were 10 nuns and 90 of the 93 children at the St. Mary's Orphanage, who sang the hymn "Queen of the Waves" until the end.

At 5:15 p.m., the Weather Bureau's anemometer blew away after recording its maximum reading of 100 mph; instruments to record greater velocity had been thought unnecessary. Barometric pressure plummeted to an unheard of 28.49 inches. Scientists have since estimated the wind reached 150 mph, gusting up to 200, a category 5, ranking it with Hurricane Camille, which killed more than 300 people on the Mississippi coast in 1969.

Relief workers from Houston found the rival city utterly destroyed. The most immediate task was disposing of thousands of decaying human and animal corpses. The waterlogged ground made burial impossible.

"An attempt was made to dispose of 700 bodies by loading them on a barge and sinking it at sea," Mr. Greene said. "Most of them floated back. The heat accelerated decomposition."

Workers, provided with whiskey and wearing masks soaked in camphor to cope with the stench, resorted to cremation. The pyres smoldered for weeks.

One of the immediate legacies of the disaster was the country's first commission form of municipal government, hastily assembled to deal with the crisis. Another is Galveston's now-famous 17-foot-high seawall, which protected the city from another powerful hurricane in 1915, from Carla in 1961 and Alicia in 1983.

"Galveston was wrecked just as the oil industry was getting under way," Mr. Greene said. When the first Texas gusher came in at Spindletop in January 1901, "Galveston was still trying to recover."

Today, Houston has more than 2 million people. Galveston has 59,000.

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