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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Great Storm

Air Date: Week of September 9, 2005

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On September 8, 1900, a hurricane struck the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. The so-called “Great Storm” killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed a city that once boasted a booming seaport and was a popular tourist magnet. Janet Heimlich visited Galveston to talk to town residents and descendents of the storm survivors. She finds that there may be lessons in Galveston for victims of Hurricane Katina.

Transcript

CURWOOD: On September 8, 1900, a catastrophic hurricane struck Galveston, Texas. Thirty-eight thousand people lived in the Gulf Coast city when the wind and water came ashore. By the time it was over some 6,000 had died which, at the time, made it this nation's deadliest natural disaster. In 2000, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of what's called "The Great Storm," we asked producer Janet Heimlich to talk with descendants of survivors who shared what they knew about what happened on that day and how the city rebuilt itself.

[SURF, CHILDREN LAUGHING AND SHOUTING]

CHILD: I think he's going down...

CHILD 2: Let's start digging like this!

HEIMLICH: Looking at a map, it's easy to see just how vulnerable Galveston is to storms. It's located on the eastern half of Galveston Island, a narrow 28-mile strip of land just off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico.

[CHILDREN PLAYING]

HEIMLICH: Today, as children play in the surf along one of Galveston's many beaches, a hurricane seems to be the last thing on people's minds. But that's not the case with Linda MacDonald, a fourth-generation Galvestonian. Her family survived the Great Storm of 1900.

MACDONALD: My grandfather, Clarence Lacomb, was six years old at the time of the storm, and he lived here in Galveston with his parents and his brothers and sisters. And when I was growing up, I used to hear my grandfather tell the story of the storm. And the first time he started telling me about the storm, I thought the storm had just happened the day before because he spoke of the storm with such feeling, such emotion. And actually, the storm had been over for more than 50 years.

HEIMLICH: Prior to 1900, people here were used to bad storms. Still, hardly anyone on September eighth anticipated the tragedy that was about to unfold. After all, this was the industrial age, when people believed themselves to be invincible, even to nature. Galvestonians were a particularly proud lot. Their port was one of the busiest in the U.S. and their beautiful beaches attracted many tourists. In the 1880s, the state legislature allocated funds for Galveston to build a seawall, but the city refused. Many believed it would hurt businesses along the shore. Ms. MacDonald says that on the day of the storm, her grandfather had no idea of the force growing out in the Gulf.

MACDONALD: Around noon on September the eighth, my grandfather said that he was playing in the street. He said the streets were starting to flood, and he said it was just so much fun to be out there making little toys. He said they made boats out of sticks and they were sailing them down the streets.

HEIMLICH: Others also were unsuspecting. That morning, crowds gathered on the beach to watch the unusually large waves. But by afternoon, that fascination turned to fear as the waves began to erode the beach and tear apart nearby buildings. One man, however, had known something was amiss for some time. Early that morning, Isaac Cline, a weatherman for the National Weather Service, had noticed strange ocean activity and a huge drop in barometric pressure. In Dr. Cline's follow-up report of the storm, he wrote that as the day wore on, he and his staff were overwhelmed by panicked residents.

MAN (Reading from report): Hundreds of people who could not reach us by telephone came to the Weather Bureau office seeking advice. The public was warned, over the telephone and verbally, that the wind would go by the east to the south, and that the worst was yet to come.

HEIMLICH: Throughout the afternoon, the rain and wind intensified and the water rose higher. In the McDonald home, as the family sat huddled, the water outside was rocking the house to and fro. Ms. MacDonald says at that point, her grandfather was handed an axe by his father and told to chop through the floor.

MACDONALD: The harder he chopped, the harder he cried. He said it wasn't just that he was going to die. He said, they were all going to die insane. He said this was madness. But of course, what happened was they cut through the floor, the water came up and settled the house down. It's probably what kept it from being taken off of its foundation.

HEIMLICH: Others tried to escape the rising water by going to higher stories or climbing into trees. But these efforts often proved futile. The highest point in the city was only eight feet high, and by early evening the tidal surge had reached 15 feet. Flying debris proved especially dangerous, as slate shingles from rooftops flew at people, cutting them down. It's hard to say just how fast the winds got. The instruments used to measure wind velocity were destroyed. But meteorologists estimate they were blowing at about 140 miles per hour. Ms. McDonald says her grandfather listened in fear to the sounds of people who had been flung into the raging water.

MACDONALD: And he said he would hear those sounds off in the distance, and then they'd be very faint, and then they would get louder and louder as people floated by, and then get soft again, he said. But most often those sounds would be abruptly cut off, and then he knew someone's life had ended.

[SURF AND CHILDREN]

HEIMLICH: When the storm was over at about midnight, the devastation it left behind was tremendous. About 3,600 buildings were destroyed. It's believed that at least 6,000 people, nearly a sixth of Galveston's population, died. 2,000 others perished on the mainland. The storm also proved financially devastating. Galveston would never again regain its prominent economic status. But while Linda MacDonald's family talked about the hurricane, many others did not. Galvestonian Mike Doherty, whose family also survived the storm, says he wasn't told much about it when he was growing up. He has many questions about the aftermath.

DOHERTY: You know, what was it like to live here afterwards? Where did they get food? Where did they get water? The railroad bridge was gone. Many cisterns, which was a supply of water, were gone. The water line from the mainland was gone. You really wonder how these people even existed.

HEIMLICH: And despite the great losses, Mike Doherty says the city has never held a public memorial. Until now. Mr. Doherty heads the 1900 Storm Commemoration Committee, which is planning a series of events over the weekend of September eighth, including a memorial where a statue will be dedicated to those who died.

DOHERTY: We wanted to have a proper memorial service for these folks that perhaps was never held, other than little small clusters, I'm sure. We also wanted to educate the public and tell the story about the great recovery of Galveston.

HEIMLICH: That recovery began with trying to figure out how to dispose of the thousands of dead bodies. There were too many to be buried, so hundreds were sent out on barges to be buried at sea. But many soon washed back up on shore, so city officials decided to burn the corpses as quickly as possible. To get residents to carry out the grim task, authorities gave them free liquor and held some at gunpoint. Joe Kirpatrick was a newspaper reporter in Galveston for 40 years. He says he was particularly taken by the account of one storm survivor named Phillip Gordie Tipp .

KIRPATRICK: There was a pond, and Tipp wrote that after the storm they gathered near that pond and they burned bodies. They piled them high and they burned them and they burned them and they burned them. And in his letter, he said that he would never forget the smell of burning bodies in Galveston.

HEIMLICH: The city also tried to protect itself from future storms. In 1904 it erected a seawall that ran for three miles along the Gulf side. Later it was lengthened to ten miles. And what officials decided to do next amazes engineers to this day. They would raise the grade of the city. Eric Larson is the author of a recent book on the hurricane, called "Isaac's Storm."

LARSON: What this entailed was this tremendous, tremendous engineering effort. You know, we're talking here about raising a cathedral using two thousand hand jacks, and then filling underneath with fill, with sand pumped from a canal.

HEIMLICH: When the project was completed in 1910, the land sloped down from about 17 feet high at the seawall to where it meets the bay on the other side. Many Galvestonians boast that the seawall and the grade raising have saved countless lives in storms that have hit since 1900. Fletcher Harris, whose family survived the storm, points to the next major one that came along in 1915 which killed 275 Texans, including 53 on Galveston Island.

HARRIS: At that time the seawall had never been proven or tested. But in 1915 there wasn't a life lost behind the seawall. Now, the historians will argue that, but the truth of it is that they couldn't document one person. Bodies were floating in from both ends, because the seawall stopped at Thirty-Ninth Street; it didn't go all the way where it goes now.

HEIMLICH: The attachment Galvestonians have to their city and the events of the storm was especially apparent last year, when Eric Larson's book “Isaac's Storm” came out. The book centers around Isaac Cline, the weatherman of 1900. In the book, Mr. Larson takes issue with Dr. Cline's claim to have saved thousands of people by warning them about the approaching storm. It's a portrayal that rubs many in the Galveston area the wrong way. Lew Fincher, a hurricane preparedness consultant north of Galveston, accuses the author of trying to make Dr. Cline look bad for money.

FINCHER: I think his angle was, “well, how can I sell this book?”

HEIMLICH: But Mr. Larson, who says he researched Dr. Cline's work thoroughly, says he anticipated such a response when he wrote the book.

LARSON: It's always, I think, a wrenching thing when you kind of take a closer look at a legend.

HEIMLICH: But there's one point on which both men agree: too many people in Galveston seem to have forgotten about the destruction that took place in 1900. They point out that many large homes have been built on the western end of Galveston Island where there's no seawall. Again, Lew Fincher.

FINCHER: When we have a hurricane, next time we have one, and we will have one, but when it happens you're going to see the destruction, possibly, just like what we're talking about today about the 1900 storm.

HEIMLICH: But those who feel personally touched by The Great Storm say they'll never forget what happened on September eighth, even if it was a century ago. Fletcher Harris says he owes remembering the past to his relatives who suffered through it.

HARRIS: I inherited something from those people that went through that storm. I inherited something that has driven me to excel and to do everything that can be done for Galveston and try to make it grow and everything else. That's what I'm feeling. I've felt that all my life.

HEIMLICH: For Living On Earth, I'm Janet Heimlich in Galveston, Texas.

[MUSIC: Duane Eddy “Ghost Riders in The Sky” from ‘Best Of…’ (Curb Records – 1998]

 

Links

The 1900 Storm

“Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson

 

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