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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Great Hurricane of 1900

Read about The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. This excerpt is taken from HURRICANE! Coping with Disaster by Robert Simpson, Richard Anthes, and Michael Garstang (Link above is chapter written by Dr. Niel Frank)

This post will remain up top until September 8th - the anniversay of The Great Storm of 1900. Please scroll down for more recent posts.

Labor Day weekend is the 107th anniversary of the devestating hurricane that hit Galveston, TX in 1900. It was and remains the deadliest natural disaster ever in US history. Officially over 6,000 people perished on September 8, 1900. Unofficially, some estimates place the death toll at 8,000 - 12,000. At the time, the population of Galveston was 37,000 - 38,000 people. That comes out to between 1 and 2 deaths per 6 people! I cannot imagine the magnitude of the disaster that existed the next day.

Some other figures from that day:

  • 8.7 feet: The highest elevation on Galveston Island in 1900.

  • 15.7 feet: The height of the storm surge.

  • 28.55 inches: Barometric pressure recorded in Galveston, 30 miles from where the eye of the storm is best estimated. At the time, this was the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded.

  • 3,600: Number of buildings destroyed by the storm.

  • 130 to 140 miles per hour: Speed meteorologists estimate the winds reached during the storm.

  • $20 million: Estimated damage costs related to the storm. In today's dollars, that would be more than $700 million.
Some of the accounts I have read of the storm commented that it was commonplace at the time for the water from the bay and the water from the Gulf to meet together in the middle of the Island during bad storms. Part of the problem that led to complacency with this storm is that the people expected the squall to blow like usual. No warnings were given by the National Weather Service until it was too late. The NWS made all weather warnings from Washington and they expected the storm to curve north before it reached the Texas coast. A mistake that proved to be fatal.

As terrible as this storm was, it was the actions of the city in the recovery and rebuilding that are also to be recognized and commended.

The city was rebuilt, but not in the same way as before. A seawall was constructed that was 17 feet high and 4 miles long to protect the city. At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers pumped silt and sand in behind that seawall and raised the elevation of the entire city. The land behind the seawall was completely filled in and the grade gradually slopes to provide an overall 10 ft elevation throughout the city.

The original seawall was finished in 1911 and tested in 1915 when another Category 4 hurricane came ashore in Galveston. According to the commemorative plaques along Seawall Blvd, only 12 people in the 1915 storm. The attached excerpt puts the seath toll at 237. Either way, significantly reduced from the toll of the Great Storm. The Seawall works. Since then the seawall has been extended several times and is now over 10 miles long, but due to subsidence it is only 14 ft high. The western end of the Island is completely unprotected and has been developing radipdly with large and beautiful beach homes and condos. A similar disaster could certainly take place if people do not take the proper precautions. I always wonder why the seawall hasn't been extended - although there are some large sand dunes at that end of the beach that will offer some protection. Another precaution is to build back a bit from the beach. A few dozen feet can make a major difference in damage from storm surge or tidal action.

I love living on the coast, but I recognize that some care must be taken in making that decision. We can enjoy a life on the beach and be smart about it too.

Finally, the lessons from the Great Storm of 1900 are pertinent today. After New Orleans flooded during Hurricane Katrina, I wrote an Op-Ed that was rejected by the New York Times that called for the raising up of the low areas of the city. Don't rebuild the 9th ward as it once was - raise the city and build it on a new level with proper protection.

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