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The 1900 Storm: Tragedy and Triumph

Galveston's Sacred Heart Church was destroyed
by the storm. Courtesy of Rosenberg Library.

Mother Nature's wrath

Little is known about the exact weather conditions of the 1900 hurricane.

The instruments Cline and other meteorologists used were far from the technologically advanced forecasting systems of today. Little was known about tropical cyclones, as hurricanes were called then.

Cline would spend much of his later career studying hurricanes so the world would not face the unexpected and sudden devastation it did that night in Galveston.

When the storm's fury was at its greatest, the wind speed could only be estimated.

Cline estimated that the winds exceeded 120 miles per hour. But with information available today, and using the knowledge learned from all of the hurricanes since, the National Weather Service estimates that it would take winds between 130 and 140 miles per hour to produce the extreme tide and storm surge of the 1900 Storm.

The 15 1/2 -foot storm surge rolled over the island from gulf to bay. Houses collapsed, and as the surge continued, a wall of debris described as at least two-stories high pushed across the island. This wall destroyed everything in its path, building force as it moved across the island.

Cline's family was in the path of destruction. A trolley trestle broke from its moorings and battered the house until it collapsed. Members of Clines' family were thrown into the waves.

In his memoir, Cline wrote: "The battle for our lives, against the elements and the terrific hurricane winds and storm-tossed wreckage, lasted from 8 p.m. until near midnight. This struggle to live continued through one of the darkest of nights with only an occasional flash of lightning which revealed the terrible carnage about us."

When it finally stopped, the wall of debris served to protect those buildings behind it from destruction. That is to say, it helped to prevent the buildings from crumbling into a pile of lumber. Few buildings escaped without damage, and according to newspaper accounts from that week, no one escaped loss of property or family.

The area from First Street to Eighth Street and from the beach to the harbor was destroyed, as was the area west of 45th Street to the end of the city. Between those two areas, the destruction stretched at an angle from Ninth Street to 45th Street. Houses were bulldozed flat for up to 15 blocks from the beach.

Pictures taken after the storm show empty streets. No people. No animals. No trees. No personal belongings. Only piles of debris that buried families beneath the remains of their homes. Bodies occasionally hang outside the debris piles. But, for the most part, an eerie emptiness paints a picture few words could describe.

The stench of decaying bodies and of fish and other animals rotting in the streets is unimaginable. What person could imagine the sheer bewilderment the survivors must have felt in the morning? For all practical purposes, the island was destroyed that night.

REBUILDING A CITY

 
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Published in conjunction with the City of Galveston 1900 Storm Committee.

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