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The Galveston Hurricane of 1900
When they awoke on the morning of September 8, 1900, the 38,000 residents of Galveston, Texas were unaware that this day would be their city's last. They had no idea that before the day was done, 8,000 of their fellow citizens would perish with the city. The culprit was a hurricane. The storm swept in off the Gulf of Mexico packing winds up to 135 mph - a category 4 storm in modern terminology. The storm propelled a fifteen-foot surge of water before it; easily swamping the 8.7-foot-high island that Galveston called home. Together, the wind and the water destroyed everything in their path and created the worst natural disaster in America's history.

There was little warning and no defense. In the early morning, high tides flooded some of the inland streets. Yet, this was not unusual in a city that barely rose above sea level. Heavy swells began to appear, but the mostly blue sky prompted a confidence that nothing out of the ordinary was about to occur. Most residents reasoned that even if a storm was on its way, they had weathered storms before. As a relative of one victim later recalled: "Mama didn't want to leave. She'd been through it before and wasn't worried. It had never been that bad." However, Galveston had never seen a storm like this one.

By mid-morning rain clouds took over the sky and the wind began to pick up. By mid-afternoon the hurricane hit with an intensity that only increased as darkness descended. The storm made its exit during the early morning hours of the next day; the total devastation it left in its wake revealed only with the rising sun. The bodies of the storm's victims littered a landscape strewn with debris in which few buildings remained standing.

The city immediately began the task of clearing up the wreckage and rebuilding. To bolster its defenses, the city actually raised its buildings by as much as 17 feet by pumping sand beneath their foundations. A thick, sturdy seawall was then built along the island's ocean front. But Galveston was never the same; once the busiest port in Texas, with the promise of becoming the "New York of the South," the storm convinced shippers to move north to Houston's safer harbor.

"...all at once the house went from its foundation and the water came in waist-deep:"

Milton Elford was a young man living in Galveston with his mother, father and a young nephew, Dwight. Milton was the only one of his family to survive the storm. He described his experience in a letter to his brothers in North Dakota. We join his story as the rising water and intensity of the storm persuade the family to leave their home for a sturdier brick house across the street:

"We left our house about 4 o'clock thinking we would be safer in a larger house, not dreaming that even that house would be washed away. We went across the street to a fine large house, built on a brick foundation high off the ground. About 5 it grew worse and began to break up the fence, and the wreckage of other houses was coming against us.

We had arranged that if the house showed signs of breaking up, I would take the lead and Pa would come next, with Dwight and Ma next. In this way I could make a safe place to walk, as we would have to depend on floating debris for rafts.

There were about fifteen or sixteen in the house besides ourselves. They were confident the house would stand anything; if not for that we would probably have left on rafts before the house went down. We all gathered in one room; all at once the house went from its foundation and the water came in waist-deep, and we all made a break for the door, but could not get it open. We then smashed out the window and I led the way.

I had only got part way out when the house fell on us. I was hit on the head with smoothing and it knocked me out ad into the water head first. I do not know how long I was down, as I must have been stunned. I came up and got hold of some wreckage on the other side of the house. I could see one man on some wreckage to my left and another on my right. I went back to the door that we could not open. It was broke in, and I could go part way in, as one side of the ceiling was not within four or five feet, I think, of water. There was not a thing in sight.

I went back and got on the other side but no one ever came up that I could see. We must all have gone down the same time, but I cannot tell what they did not come up.

I then started to leave by partly running and swimming from one lot of debris to another. The street was full of tops and sides of houses and the air was full of flying boards. I think I gained about a block on the debris in this way, and got in the shelter of some buildings, but they were fast going down, and I was afraid of getting buried.

Just then, the part I was on started down the street, and I stuck my head and shoulders in an old tool chest that was lying in the debris that I was on. I could hardly hold this down on its side from being blown away, but that is what saved my life again.

When the water went down about 3 a.m., I was about five bocks from where I started. My head was bruised and legs and hands cut a little, which I did not find until Monday and then I could hardly get my hat on.

...As soon as it was light enough, I went back to the location of the house, and not a sign of it could be found and not a sign any house within two blocks, where before there was scarcely a vacant lot.

I then went to the city hall to see the chief of police, to get some help to recover the corpses, thinking, I guess, that I was the only one in that fix.

The fireman and others started before noon to bring in corpses; they brought them in in wagon loads of about a dozen at a time, laid them down in rows to be identified, and he next day they were badly decomposed, and were loaded on boats and taken to sea only to wash back on the beach. They then started to bury them wherever they were found but yesterday (Wednesday) the corpses were ordered burned. Men started removing the debris and burning it, and when they came upon a corpse it is just thrown on the pile."

   Milton Elford's account appears in: Halstead, Murat, Galveston: the Horrors of a Stricken City (1900); Bixell, Patricia, Galveston and the 1900 Storm (2000); Larson, Erick, Isaac's Storm (1999).

How To Cite This Article:
"The Galveston Hurricane of 1900" EyeWitness to History, (2005).

More people died in the Galveston hurricane of 1900 than the combined death toll of all hurricanes that have since struck the United States.