In terms of lives lost, the worst natural disaster in US history was the hurricane which struck Galveston, Texas without warning on Saturday, September 8, 1900, completely leveling the island's 18 city blocks and killing at least 8,000 people within a few hours' time.
In 1900, Galveston was a thriving and sophisticated seaport of 37,000 residents. Amassing great wealth as a hub of the cotton trade, Galveston was the first city in Texas with electricity and telephones and had 50 miles of streetcar track on an island only 3 miles in length. Boasting more millionaires than Newport, Rhode Island had at the time, the city was home to an Opera House and the consulates of 19 foreign nations.
But in an age before weather satellites and with little scientific understanding of meteorology, Galveston was woefully unprepared for the arrival of a major hurricane. The only way to get advanced warning of storms in those days was word-of-mouth spread from ship captain to ship captain and only then if somebody happened to stumble onto the storm in time. To make matters worse, many people thought Galveston was too far north to be hit by a major hurricane, so when rumors of a big storm were reported to the city's weather bureau on September 4, forecasters confidently decided that the storm would hit Florida.
The memoirs of Isaac Cline, senior Weather Bureau employee present at Galveston during the storm, illustrate the lack of understanding of how suddenly hurricanes can hit: "The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case. Showery weather commenced at 8:45 a.m. on September 8, 1900, but dense clouds and heavy rain were not in evidence."
Indeed when winds rose to an unusual 15 miles per hour on Friday evening, few if any were concerned, and as the winds steadily grew stronger on Saturday morning, unconcerned residents, rather than fleeing, flocked to the beach to gawk at the huge 15-foot waves. At some point in mid-morning, as the winds rose toward 50 miles an hour, a steamship broke lose from its moorings and crashed through the three bridges that connected Galveston to the mainland, cutting off any escape. The stage was set for disaster.
Around noon, the winds began to shift to the east, finally allowing the storm, which had previously been held at bay by the northerly winds, to smash into the city with its full force. The city began to flood, slowly at first, and then at an increasingly rapid rate, in a surge that would ultimately reach 15.7 feet above mean high tide.
Unfortunately, the highest point in the whole of Galveston island was only 8.7 feet above sea level.
As the flooding progressed, the trapped residents of Galveston headed to higher ground, huddling together in large groups on the last scraps of dry land like "rats clinging to the sinking mast of a ship" in the memories of one of the survivors. When even those areas flooded they began to climb trees and head upstairs to the second and third floors and finally to the roofs of the city's tallest buildings as houses and smaller buildings were swept away.
Winds reached at least 102 miles per hour before the city's sole anemometer was swept away, and modern estimates put them at 145 mph at the height of the storm, which would place the hurricane at category 4 out of a possible 5 on the modern Saffir/Simpson scale. The last barometric pressure recorded by the Galveston weather bureau was 28.55 inches, the lowest barometer reading that had ever been recorded by anyone anywhere up to that time.
In then end, even the highest buildings collapsed under the surge and residents either survived the storm by clinging to debris and riding out the wind, rain, and waves for nearly a full 24 hours, or they drowned. Even among those who survived, many were injured or permanently maimed by the scudding, swirling debris whipped to and fro across the surface of the sea by the winds.
Estimates of the death toll are necessarily imprecise given that many of the bodies were carried out to sea and never found, there was no account of the exact number of people living in and around Galveston, and with whole families wiped out, no tally of the missing could be carried out after the storm. What is known is that at least 6,000 people were killed on Galveston island, and another 2,000 when the storm carried on to smash into the towns edging Galveston Bay during the night of September 8-9. The upper estimates place the total death toll as high as 12,000 people.
Eventually, the storm would cross the entire continent, bringing 70 mile per hour winds as far north as the Great Lakes, and not completely burning itself out until it was somewhere over Siberia.
By mid-morning on September 9, the waters had receded and the island reappeared on the map. The scene of devastation that emerged bordered on the apocalyptic. Old photographs show massive beams of wood scattered and heaped about like some gargantuan child's abandoned lincoln logs. Survivors wandered about in a state of utter shock, many bloodied and nude, their cloths having been sucked off completely by the mighty winds. Thousands of bodies of people and animals lay scattered about, buried under the debris, or even hanging from trees to the point where the waters had risen, and as the humidity and heat began to rise an unbearable stench rose up over the city and would linger for months until the last bodies were exhumed from under the deepest debris.
Disposal of the bodies soon became a major problem. On an island, there was simply nowhere to bury them. At first they were stacked on hastily constructed barges like cordwood and floated out to sea, but in a macabre twist the tide simply carried them back, depositing them in heaps on the shore. At last the city's temporary leaders ordered mass burnings of the dead, who were collected by exhausted "dead gangs," who were plied with whiskey and even threatened at gunpoint to keep them working. The corpses were piled on massive funeral pyres which were kept burning non-stop for more than a month, only adding to the stench.
Another problem was looting and lawlessness, as some of the trapped residents of the islands took advantage of the complete collapse of civic and social order to commit all manner of crimes. Martial law was declared, and vigilante groups prowled the streets, executing on the spot at least 125 people who they decided were attempting to loot property, rob the dead, or lay a hand on a woman.
One aspect of the tragedy which drew particular attention was the extinction of nearly every resident of Galveston's St. Mary's Orphanage which collapsed during the storm - 90 out of 93 orphans and all 10 nuns perished. Days after the storm, one of the children was found on the beach near where the orphanage once stood. When the toddler's body was lifted, another child and another and another emerged from the sand. Altogether, 8 children and a nun had tied themselves together with clothesline in an attempt to ride out the storm. Another story tells of a child who survived because someone had nailed his wrist to the orphanage's rooftop.
Ultimately, the city of Galveston did recover. Learning from their past complacence, they constructed a mammoth seawall, 17 feet high and three miles wide, and drastically raised the island's elevation by means of a massive dredging of Galveston Bay. When another major hurricane struck Galveston on August 16, 1915, only eight people were killed, a testament to lessons well learned.