1900 Galveston Hurricane: History, Damage, Impact

America's deadliest natural disaster

The sun rises behind the 1900 Storm Memorial in Galveston, Texas
The sun rises behind the 1900 Storm Memorial in Galveston, Texas. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, also known as the Great Galveston Storm, was a powerful Atlantic tropical cyclone that struck the island city of Galveston, Texas, on the night of September 8, 1900. Coming ashore with an estimated strength of a Category 4 hurricane on the modern Saffir–Simpson scale, the storm claimed between 8,000 and 12,000 lives in Galveston Island and nearby mainland towns. Today, the storm remains the deadliest weather-related natural disaster in U.S. history. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina (2005) killed 1,833 and Hurricane Maria (2017) killed nearly 5,000.

Key Takeaways: Galveston Hurricane

  • The Galveston Hurricane was a devastating Category 4 hurricane that struck the island city of Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900.
  • With maximum sustained winds of 145 mph and a 15-foot-deep storm surge, the hurricane killed at least 8,000 people and left another 10,000 homeless.
  • To prevent similar future disasters, Galveston built a massive 17-foot-tall, 10-mile-long concrete seawall.
  • Galveston rebuilt, and despite being struck by several powerful hurricanes since 1900, remains a successful commercial seaport and popular tourist destination.
  • Because of its massive loss of life and property damage, the Galveston Hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Background

The City of Galveston is a narrow barrier island about 27 miles long and 3 miles wide located in the Gulf of Mexico, approximately 50 miles southeast of Houston, Texas. The island was first mapped in 1785 by Spanish explorer Jose de Evia, who named it after his patron, Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez. During the early 1800s, the French pirate Jean Lafitte used the island as a base for his thriving privateering, smuggling, slave trading, and gambling operations. After banishing Jean Lafitte, the U.S. Navy used Galveston as a port for ships engaged in the Texas War of Independence from Mexico in 1835-1836.

After being incorporated as a city in 1839, Galveston quickly grew to become an important American seaport and thriving commercial center. By 1900, the island’s population was approaching 40,000, leaving it challenged only by Houston as one of the Gulf Coast’s largest and most commercially important cities. However, in the darkness of September 8, 1900, the winds of the Galveston Hurricane, often topping 140 mph, drove a storm surge-carried wall of water across the island, washing away 115 years of history and progress.

Timeline

The saga of the Galveston Hurricane played out over 19 days, from August 27 to September 15, 1900.

  • August 27: The captain of a cargo ship sailing east of the Windward Islands of the West Indies reported the first tropical storm of the season. Though the storm was weak and ill-defined at the time, it was moving steadily west-northwestward toward the Caribbean Sea.
  • August 30: The storm entered the northeastern Caribbean.
  • September 2: The storm made landfall in the Dominican Republic as a weak tropical storm.
  • September 3: Intensifying, the storm crossed Puerto Rico with winds topping 43 mph at San Juan. Moving westward over Cuba, the city of Santiago de Cuba recorded 12.58 inches of rain over 24 hours.
  • September 6: The storm entered the Gulf of Mexico and quickly strengthened into a hurricane.
  • September 8: Just before dark, the Category 4 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph, slammed into the barrier island of Galveston, Texas, devastating the once thriving coastal city.
  • September 9: Now weakened, the storm made landfall on the mainland United States just south of Houston, Texas.
  • September 11: Downgraded to a tropical depression, the remnants of the Galveston Hurricane moved across the Midwestern United States, New England, and Eastern Canada.
  • September 13: The tropical storm reached the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, striking Newfoundland and entering the North Atlantic Ocean.
  • September 15: In the cold waters of the North Atlantic, the storm fell apart near Iceland.

Aftermath

Tragically, weather forecasting in 1900 was still primitive by today’s standards. Hurricane tracking and forecasting depended on scattered reports from ships in the Gulf of Mexico. Though people on Galveston Island could see that a storm was coming, they had no warning of how deadly it would become. While forecasters of the U.S. Weather Bureau had predicted the storm on September 5, they failed to predict the full extent of the deadly high tide generated by its storm surge. While the Weather Bureau had suggested that people should move to higher ground, there was little “higher ground” on the island and residents and vacationers alike disregarded the warnings. One Weather Bureau employee and his wife drowned in the unexpectedly severe flooding.

A house tipped on its side, with several boys standing in front, after the Great Galveston Storm in Texas.
A house tipped on its side, with several boys standing in front, after the Great Galveston Storm in Texas. US Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In addition to killing at least 8,000 people, the hurricane’s tidal storm surge, driven by sustained winds of 145 mph, sent a 15-foot-deep wall of water over Galveston, which was then situated less than 9 feet above sea level. More than 7,000 buildings, including 3,636 homes, were destroyed, with every dwelling on the island suffering some degree of damage. At least 10,000 of the city’s nearly 38,000 residents were left homeless. During the first few weeks after the storm, homeless survivors found temporary shelter in hundreds of surplus U.S. Army tents pitched on the beach. Others built crude “storm lumber” shanties from the salvageable remains of flattened buildings. 

Lithograph depicting of the gulf tidal wave that devastated Galveston, TX, on September 8, 1900.
Lithograph depicting of the gulf tidal wave that devastated Galveston, TX, on September 8, 1900. Bettmann/Getty Images

Due to loss of life and property damages estimated at over $700 million in today’s currency, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 remains the deadliest natural disaster in America’s history.

One of the most tragic events in the storm’s aftermath came as the survivors faced the task of burying the dead. Realizing they lacked the resources needed to identify and properly bury so many bodies, Galveston officials directed that the corpses be weighted, carried offshore on barges, and dumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Within days, however, the bodies began washing back up on the beaches. Out of desperation, workers built makeshift funeral pyres to burn the decomposing corpses. Survivors recalled seeing the fires burning day and night for weeks.

African American men carrying body on stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood, Galveston, Texas
Galveston disaster, carrying dead body to fire to be burned. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Galveston’s booming economy had been washed away in a matter of hours. Wary of future hurricanes, potential investors looked 50-miles inland to Houston, which quickly expanded its ship channel and deep water port to accommodate the growth.

Now painfully aware that more major hurricanes were likely to hit their island, Galveston officials hired engineers J.M. O`Rourke & Co. to design and build a massive concrete barrier seawall that raised the island’s Gulf of Mexico shoreline by 17-feet. When the next major hurricane hit Galveston in 1915, the seawall proved its worth, as the damage was held to a minimum and only eight people were killed. Originally completed on July 29, 1904, and extended in 1963, the 10-mile-long Galveston seawall is now a popular tourist attraction.

Galveston seawall under construction, July 31, 1905
Galveston seawall under construction, July 31, 1905. US National Archive/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Since regaining the reputation it had as a tourist destination during the 1920s and 1930s, Galveston has continued to thrive. While the island has been struck by major hurricanes in 1961, 1983, and 2008, none have caused more damage than the 1900 storm. While it is doubtful that Galveston will ever return to its pre-1900 level of prominence and prosperity, the unique island city remains a successful shipping port and popular seaside resort destination. 

Galveston, Texas is seen in the early morning hours (1999)
Galveston, Texas is seen in the early morning hours (1999). Gregory Smith/Getty Images

Sources and Further Reference

  • Trumbla, Ron. “The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900.” NOAA, May 12, 2017, https://celebrating200years.noaa.gov/magazine/galv_hurricane/welcome.html#intro.
  • Roker, Al. “Blown Away: Galveston Hurricane, 1900.” American History Magazine, September 4, 2015, https://www.historynet.com/blown-away.htm.
  • “Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.” Galveston County Daily News, 2014, https://www.1900storm.com/isaaccline/isaacsstorm.html.
  • Burnett, John. “The Tempest At Galveston: ‘We Knew There Was A Storm Coming, But We Had No Idea’.” NPR, November 30, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/11/30/566950355/the-tempest-at-galveston-we-knew-there-was-a-storm-coming-but-we-had-no-idea.
  • Olafson, Steve. “Unimaginable devastation: Deadly storm came with little warning.” Houston Chronicle, 2000, https://web.archive.org/web/20071217220036/http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/special/1900storm/644889.html.