TCS Daily

The City That Raised Itself From the Dead

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - September 9, 2004 12:00 AM

This wasn't Galveston.

Floridians were hit hard by Tropical Storm Frances, but at least they saw it coming. Back in 1900, the people of Galveston didn't. We'll get back to that later.

In this day of Doppler radar, "hurricane hunter" aircraft and satellite imagery we are able to watch the meteorological punch coming in slow motion.

With Frances it was agonizingly slow. Frances dawdled. Frances lingered. Frances took her good old time venting her fury on central Florida.

And all the while we switched from Weather Channel to cable news channels, to local news, watching the bright green swirl on the electronic weather map, the thick skein of cars on I-95, the familiar shots of guys boarding up windows with plywood

And, of course, there were the endless "live" shots of reporters in parkas blasted by rain and wind as they shouted into their microphones, all hoping that somehow Frances would turn into Hurricane Emmy.

But when the worst natural disaster in American history occurred, September 8th, 1900, the people of Galveston, the prosperous island city on the coast of Texas, had virtually no warning.

For some reason, the San Francisco earthquake (1906) and the great Johnstown flood (1889) have always captured the public's attention, but what happened at Galveston in the space of a few hours caused a death toll much higher than these two disasters combined.

Galveston in 1900 was America's biggest cotton port and the third busiest harbor in the country. It was said to have "more millionaires, street for street" than any other U.S. city. Its famous Strand was known as the "Wall Street of the Southwest" and its harbor was called the "Western Ellis Island" because it was second only to New York as a port of entry for immigrants. It seemed destined to become one of the largest centers of commerce and industry in the western United States.

Poised as it was on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston was also a part of the vast weather monitoring service of the recently-organized U.S. Weather Bureau. Dr. Isaac Cline was the chief local forecaster for Galveston, part of a network of 158 weather observatories across the country augmented by more than 2500 volunteer observers, and tied in by telegraph to numerous coastal stations, river monitoring stations and weather outposts in the West Indies.

When some of the city fathers had suggested that perhaps a barrier wall should be built along the coastal side of the island as a protection against hurricanes, Dr. Cline opposed the project as a waste of money. He characterized fears that a hurricane could endanger the city as "an absurd delusion." The idea had been abandoned. Dr. Cline, after all, was a highly trained weather expert.

Somewhere off the coast of Africa in late August a swirl of hot air began moving west across the Atlantic, sucking up more and more energy as it passed over sun-warmed water. For all intents and purposes it was unseen as it grew.

Some ship captains in the Caribbean encountered its towering clouds and high winds. Cables filtered into the Weather Bureau in Washington and were relayed to southern stations warning of a tropical storm that would probably hit Florida.

But this storm seemed to have a mission. It quickly crossed Florida and once in the Gulf it gathered speed and headed directly toward Galveston. Unlike many hurricanes, which change direction and slow down, this one moved straight and swiftly.

It had been an unusually hot summer and the waters of the Gulf were very warm, so the storm gathered tremendous energy as it raced toward Texas, pushing a great wall of water along its leading edge.

Dr. Cline raised the black and red hurricane flag at the Galveston weather station on Friday, September 7, but few people paid attention. Angry winds, precursors of the storm, blew late Friday and early Saturday. Galveston, an island about 30 miles long and two miles wide, was virtually at sea level. Flooding from the Gulf began early. By noon on Saturday southern and eastern parts of the city were under water. When night fell on September 8th winds were blowing at 80 miles per hour, hurling roof shingles and other debris through the streets.

By this time all four bridges leading off the island had been destroyed. The 37,000 residents of Galveston had no choice but to ride out the storm. One of the last communiqu├ęs from the city, read, "Gulf rising rapidly, half the city now under water...great loss of life must result."

Sometime before midnight the wind gauge at Dr. Cline's weather station recorded 100 miles per hour and then was blown away. The barometer dropped to 28.55, the lowest ever recorded at that time.

As the winds howled out of the darkness, the storm surge came. The highest point of ground on Galveston Island was 8.7 feet above sea level. The wall of water that roared out of the Gulf was 16 feet high. People on the roofs of taller buildings could hear the crashing sounds as houses and buildings around them were carried away.

By the early hours of September 9th the storm had passed. More than 2000 people had perished at Johnstown. About 700 would die six years later in San Francisco. The best estimates for Galveston range from a minimum of 6,000 to a maximum of 12,000, counting those lost in areas beyond the city. Among the dead, Dr. Cline's wife.

More than 3,600 buildings and houses had been destroyed. Damage estimates in today's dollars would be $700 million. Rotting bodies littered the streets and beaches creating a terrible stench in the summer heat. Attempts to load bodies onto barges, weight them down and bury them at sea went awry. Many of the corpses washed back to shore the following day. Cremation was the only practical solution. Mass funeral pyres glowed amid the devastation for more than a week.

It took some time for news of what had happened in Galveston to get out to the nation. When relief trains attempted to reach the city the engineers found the rails blocked by debris and piles of corpses.

The death toll and property losses in Galveston were so devastating that they never really sank into the American psyche. Many people today have never heard of the Galveston disaster. Nor have they heard the story of how the city literally raised itself from the dead. It was one of the great feats of engineering of the early 20th century.

On Sunday morning after the disaster, the sisters at the Ursuline Convent managed to ring the bells for worship, one of the first evidences of Galveston's gritty resilience. By the end of the day the mayor and city council had appointed a Central Relief Committee.

Within a week after the storm water service had been restored. By the third week electricity was back and trolley cars were running. And within months the city embarked on an ambitious plan to insure its survival. It would build a sea wall to protect it from future storm surges, and it would literally raise the city itself above sea level.

Three civil engineers, Alfred Noble, Henry M. Robert and H.C. Ripley, supervised the amazing work. Quarter-mile-square sections of the city were enclosed with dikes. All structures within these sections were jacked up. Even the gas, water and sewer lines were raised. Then sand from the Galveston ship channel was pumped into each section through huge pipe lines until it was filled to the new level.

It took 16 million cubic yards of sand (imagine one million dump trucks) to raise 500 city blocks, some just a few inches, others almost a foot, above sea level. Between 1901 and 1911, the city was filled with massive pipes and the sound of huge pumps could be heard day and night. The stench of the wet sludge from the bottom of the ship channel filled the air. People moved about on miles of wooden catwalks that laced the city a few feet above the mud.

Meanwhile, work was begun on a massive sea wall intended to be 17 feet above sea level. It took 60 years to complete the more than 10 miles of wall along the Gulf side of the island. The wall is actually 15.6 feet above sea level. The original engineers had measured from mean low tide rather than true sea level.

Galveston survived, but it would never be the booming center of commerce that had once seemed its destiny. While it was rebuilding, Houston dredged a deep ship channel and soon became the preeminent deep-water port in Texas.

Galveston today is filled with luxury hotels and grand beach-front homes. It has become a tourist center with theaters, museums and restaurants, and the home to three college campuses. Visitors find it difficult to fathom what happened there more than a century ago because the city generally sits much higher than it once did. Many of its cemeteries, for instance, have coffins buried at three different levels.

One house which survived the hurricane and still stands today is a prefabricated structure, built in Maine and transported to Galveston in 1837. It was bought by the city's founder, Canadian Michel B. Menard.

Meteorologists estimate that the storm that changed Galveston forever was probably a Category Five storm, the strongest. No such storm has ever hit the city again. Storm experts have endlessly speculated whether Galveston's new "altitude" and its sea wall could be proof against what the National Weather Service now calls an "x-storm," an extreme hurricane.

But one thing is certain. This time, thanks to modern weather forecasting technology, the people of Galveston, like those now picking up the pieces in Florida, will at least be able to say they saw it coming.


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