Galveston’s Lessons

Galveston 1900

Hello, it’s Friday, September 8, 2017. At this hour, Irma is menacing the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Bahamas, and northern Cuba, while barreling toward Florida. She’s been downgraded slightly, to a Category 4 storm, but that is still a powerful hurricane.

The Caribbean islands hit the hardest by Irma — Barbuda, St. Martin, St. Bart, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands — are now bracing for another storm, Hurricane Jose. Meanwhile, Hurricane Katia is expected to make landfall on Mexico’s southeastern coast this weekend. And this morning, on that country’s Pacific coast, a powerful offshore earthquake struck near the Mexican-Guatemala border, causing at least five deaths and generating tsunamis.

All this just a week after Hurricane Harvey. Does it seem biblical, what’s going on? Perhaps, but there’s an interesting human dimension to all this catastrophe: the comparatively light loss of life. The death toll from Harvey, a storm that caused historic flooding, was 70. Irma has claimed 18 lives in the Caribbean so far. This is heartbreaking for the families of those who perished, but the death tolls from other historic storms — I’m thinking of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the great Galveston storm of 1900 — were far greater.

The mitigating factors in 2017 range from the existence of sea walls and construction codes to much better evacuation plans. The biggest difference in the 21st century, however, is our ability to accurately foresee threatening weather.

I’ve written previously about the turn-of-the century hurricane that destroyed Galveston on this date. But those lessons are relevant again this year, so in a moment I’ll again recount the story of how hubris cost so many lives.

In 1900, the barrier island of Galveston boasted a population almost as big as Houston’s. Seventy percent of America’s cotton moved through Galveston, the port of call for some 1,000 merchant ships annually. It was also a tourist mecca, owing to the warm and inviting waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The nagging problem for residents in that coastal haven were the unwanted summer visitors that frequented the area: the tropical storms that arrived from the Gulf with regularity. Big storms weren’t named in the 19th century. They weren’t even usually called hurricanes. But two big ones that slammed the area in 1875 and 1886 essentially wiped Indianola, a nearby rival Texas port town, off the map. Some of Indianola’s refugees had settled in Galveston, and they urged the city to take preventive measures.

The conundrum was this: Had Galveston Island been geographically protected somehow — or had its residents just been lucky? Refugees from Indianola feared the latter, and began agitating for the construction of a protective sea wall.

“A crazy idea,” wrote the regional director of a new federal agency, the U.S. Weather Bureau. His name was Isaac M. Cline, and his views were promulgated for all to see in the July 15, 1891 edition of the Galveston News. “It would be impossible,” Cline wrote, “for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.”

Isaac Cline’s confidence that Galveston was naturally protected against serious storm damage was based on two theories: First, he believed that if a hurricane came up from the Gulf of Mexico, its storm surge would be broken up by shoals offshore. The excess water would flow harmlessly under Galveston’s raised buildings. Cline also theorized that storm waves would dissipate when they ran into the shallow slope of the gulf coastline. These were faulty assumptions, we now know, which would become starkly apparent on the afternoon of September 8, 1900.

We can only theorize where the ensuing storm came from, because weather instrumentation and communications were rudimentary at the dawn of the 20th century. But the hurricane seems to have passed north of Key West, picking up power in the gulf, where the waters that summer were said to be “as warm as bath water.”

A freighter captain outside New Orleans clocked its winds at 100 miles per hour at 1 p.m. that Saturday. When it slammed into Galveston five hours later, the gales were considerably stronger. The storm surge crested to 15 feet, inundating the city. And in the exact opposite effect Isaac Cline had predicted, the backwash from the other side of the island made the water 20 feet deep.

Cline made his way to his house, one of the grandest in the city, but it did not prove to be the sanctuary he’d hoped. Here are Cline’s own words, filed in an after-action report to his Weather Bureau superiors in Washington:

“At 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered through being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child, who had gone down with myself and wife. Mr. J.L. Cline [Isaac’s brother] joined me five minutes later with my other two children, and with them and a woman and child we picked up from the raging waters, we drifted for three hours, landing 300 yards from where we started.”

By Sunday morning, the storm was gone, the surf normal. But some 3,600 dwellings were destroyed and an estimated 6,000 men, women, and children had perished in Galveston alone. Among them were 10 Sisters of Charity and 90 children from the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum. It was the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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