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The 1900 Storm: Tragedy and Triumph

Dredge material is pumped into the island during the
grade raising after the 1900 hurricane. Residents endured
years of pumps, sludge, canals, stench and miles of catwalks
during the project. Photo courtesy of Rosenberg Library.

Post-storm rebuilding considered
'Galveston's finest hour'

By MICHAEL A. SMITH
The Daily News

GALVESTON - The great storm that came roaring out of the Gulf of Mexico 100 years ago, destroying this island city and assuring its place in history, deserves its due.

But the wind and water and death brought by the unnamed hurricane, even the acts of courage and sacrifice played out in its face, are only half the story.

For while the story that began Sept. 8, 1900, is one about the fate of people at the hands of nature, it's also one about people altering their own fates by changing the face of nature.

Storm and early aftermath

Historians contend that between 10,000 and 12,000 people died during the storm, at least 6,000 of them on Galveston Island. More than 3,600 homes were destroyed on Galveston Island and the added toll on commercial structures created a monetary loss of $30 million, about $700 million in today's dollars.

The Great Storm reigns today as the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. But while the storm was phenomenal, so was the response of the people who survived it.

"Sunday morning, the day after the disaster, began with the sound of bells from the ruined Ursuline Convent calling people to worship," wrote historian David G. McComb in "Galveston: A History."

It was a fitting beginning.

Despite the unimaginable devastation and what must have been a hard realization that it could happen again, the city immediately began pulling itself out of the mud.

By 10 a.m. Sept. 9, Mayor Walter C. Jones had called emergency city council meetings and by the end of the day had appointed a Central Relief Committee.

Ignoring advice from its sister paper, The Dallas Morning News, that it move temporarily to Houston, The Galveston Daily News continued publishing from the island and never missed an issue. Sept. 9 and 10, 1900, were published together on a single sheet of paper. One side listed the dead. The other reported the devastation of the storm.

In the first week after the storm, according to McComb's book, telegraph and water service were restored. Lines for a new telephone system were being laid by the second.

"In the third week, Houston relief groups went home, the saloons reopened, the electric trolleys began operating and freight began moving through the harbor," McComb wrote.

Residents of Galveston quickly decided that they would rebuild, that the city would survive, and almost as soon, leaders began deciding how it would do so.

The two civil engineering projects leaders decided to pursue - building a seawall and raising the island's elevation - stand today and are almost as great in their scope and effect as the storm itself.

Raising the grade

It's impossible to stand anywhere in the historical parts of Galveston and get exactly the same perspective a viewer would have gotten 100 years ago.

Everything is higher than it was back then, and some spots are much higher.

The feat of raising an entire city began with three engineers hired by the city in 1901 to design a means of keeping the gulf in its place.

Along with building a seawall, Alfred Noble, Henry M. Robert and H.C. Ripley recommended the city be raised 17 feet at the seawall and sloped downward at a pitch of one foot for every 1,500 feet to the bay.

The first task required to translate their vision into a working system was a means of getting more than 16 million cubic yards of sand - enough to fill more than a million dump trucks - to the island, according to McComb.

The solution was to dredge the sand from Galveston's ship channel and pump it as liquid slurry through pipes into quarter-square-mile sections of the city that were walled off with dikes.

Their theory was that as the water drained away the sand would remain.

Before the pumping could begin, all the structures in the area had to be raised with jackscrews. Meanwhile, all the sewer, water and gas lines had to be raised.

McComb wrote that some people even raised gravestones and some tried to save trees, but most of the trees died. In the old city cemeteries along Broadway, some of the graves are three deep because of the grade raising.

The city paid to move the utilities and for the actual grade raising, but each homeowner had to pay to have the house raised.

By 1911, McComb wrote, 500 city blocks had been raised, some by just a few inches and others by as much as 11 feet.

The Seawall

The most apparent of Galveston's efforts to prevent a repeat of 1900's devastation is the seawall, which today runs from just past Boddeker Drive on the east end to just past Cove View Boulevard on the west.

The current span of just more than 10 miles was built in six sections in a period of almost 60 years, said County Engineer Mike Fitzgerald.

The oldest part of the seawall still visible runs from Sixth street to 39th street and was built between 1902 and 1904, he said.

"The original seawall ran from Eighth Street at the Galveston Wharf front to Sixth Street and from Sixth to 39th," he said.

The next section, which runs from 39th Street to 53rd Street, was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to protect its property at Fort Crockett and was completed in 1905.

In the early 1920s, the county and U.S. Army extended the original wall eastward to protect Fort San Jacinto. That project took a sharp northward curve that originally ran from Sixth Street to Eighth Street out of the seawall.

The eastward run of the wall was extended again in the late 1920s and by 1926 ran all the way to the bay just past Boddeker Drive.

In 1927, a section of wall running from 53rd Street to 61st was completed, and the final run of the wall, from 61st to its current end, was built between 1953 and 1961, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald, whose crews are charged with inspecting and maintaining parts of the wall, said he always was impressed with the engineering and construction of the wall.

"They did a great job," he said.

He said that aside from paving and painting stripes on Seawall Boulevard, there is very little to maintain. But while the engineers and builders did a good job, he said there are some glitches with the wall.

One is the fact that it's only 15.6 feet above sea level, when it was supposed to be 17 feet.

"These were marine engineers who were accustomed to measuring from mean low tide," he said.

Because of the difference between sea level and mean low tide, the seawall came out a little short.

One of the most important aspects of the seawall often goes unnoticed, he said.

"In a severe Category 4 or a Category 5 hurricane there will be some over-topping of the seawall," he said. "What a lot of people don't know is that the ground across Seawall Boulevard is sloped upward so it is 4 or 5 feet higher on the inland side than at the top of the concave surface."

The slope helps to break the action even of waves that manage to top the wall, he said.

The wall got its first real test in mid-August of 1915 when a hurricane of severity comparable to the 1900 Storm blew across the island.

While much of the city was flooded and most of the structures outside the protection of the original wall were destroyed, those behind it fared well.

The cost of such protection was high, though.

McComb estimated that it cost about $16 million to build the seawall and raise the grade.

For comparison, Fitzgerald said it would cost $10 million a mile to build the seawall in today's dollars - or more than $100 million total.

While Galveston received financial help from the county, state and federal governments, a large portion of the burden had to be carried by the city itself, at the expense of other projects.

McComb sums it up about as well as it can be:

"Human technology made it possible - for the city of Galveston to remain on such unstable land. The city did not flourish. Houston - left the island city far behind. Galveston simply survived.

"The public defenses against nature came at a high cost, but they succeeded for the most part. Its struggle for survival against nature through the application of technology represents the strongest tradition of Western civilization. Galveston's response to the great storm was its finest hour."
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Published in conjunction with the City of Galveston 1900 Storm Committee.

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