[Originally published as “A History of Hurricanes” in the Waterway Times.]
It was a day of sullen heat and stillness, the sky colored with iridescent scales. Ships steaming through the Gulf of Mexico rolled on an oily swell, their crews sprawled in the scant shade of bulwarks and ventilator cowls. Smoke hung around the ships’ stacks and rained soot on the upper decks. Below decks the engine room gangs worked stripped to the waist, their bodies oiled and sweating in heat approaching 120 degrees. It was September 8, 1900.
The swells broke heavily against the beach at Galveston. Through the morning many of the city’s residents had gathered to watch the thundering surf. They were like spectators at a stranger’s funeral, curious but uninvolved, as the pier crumpled into driftwood. Then the waves climbed the shore, splintering bathhouses and the boardwalk. Several onlookers weren’t quick enough to escape the advancing storm surge. They were the first to die in the Galveston hurricane. Within 18 hours the dead would number more than 6,000.
The surge was the precursor of the storm. The water advanced relentlessly, rapidly, as much as 2.5-feet per hour, until it stood 15 feet above mean sea level. The whole city of Galveston, built upon a barrier island, was nowhere more than 10 feet above the normal height of the sea. The entire city was soon wave-swept.
Surf 10 to 12 feet high battered beachfront houses whose residents had climbed into attics to escape the flooding. Currents generated by the storm surge scoured the sand from around the foundations. Debris—timbers, beams, entire walls—became rams driven by the weight of the storm. Their houses collapsed beneath them.
There was no accurate measurement of the wind strength. Measuring devices were carried away by the storm. Dr. Isaac Cline, meteorologist for the Army Signal Corps stationed at Galveston, estimated the wind more than 100 miles per hour. Terracotta tiles ripped from roofs were fired like shrapnel into the streets. Many of the dead were later found decapitated.
Heavy debris collided with those struggling to stay afloat—to stay alive—in flooded streets where the dead were more numerous than the living. Weakened from exposure, injury, and the relentless hammering of waves, people lost strength, lost hope, and finally lost their grip on whatever piece of flotsam kept them alive. Children were torn from their parents’ grasp. Wives sank from the view of their husbands. An entire orphanage drowned. The bodies of the nuns and children were afterward found still tied together in a futile effort to save themselves.
In the darkness and the driving rain, it wasn’t possible for the suffering to see their own outstretched hand until the lighting illuminated the devastation in fierce and unforgiving detail. Beneath the caterwauling of the wind was another sound like Arctic ice fields breaking in a spring thaw. Entire blocks of houses were splintered stumps. Timbers were grinding in the waves.
After 10 hours the wind began to ease and the storm surge, driven inland, turned back toward the sea. Tons of water hurtled like a freight train into buildings already weakened by wind, waves and battering from the opposite direction. Many of those who had survived the worst of the storm and thought themselves spared died in the final surge of destruction.
In the days following the storm, rescuers found 3,000 bodies in the wreckage of buildings, 1,000 scattered in streets and yards, 500 on the bay shores. Another 500 may have been carried out to sea. On the railroad bridge between Galveston and the mainland, 48 corpses were counted, the bodies embedded like buckshot in the girders. Farther down the barrier island another 1,200 may have died. Almost 18% of Galveston’s population didn’t survive the night.
When the water receded, the dead weren’t only human. Rotting fish littered the streets. The bodies of drowned rats, dogs and cats were piled in windrows. The stench became unbearable in the oppressive heat. To avoid epidemic disease, disposal of the dead was imperative. Anyone capable of working, willing or not, was impressed into service collecting the dead for mass burial at sea, (there was no place ashore to accommodate so many graves), the bodies loaded onto a barge and stacked like cordwood. Many of the corpses were stripped of clothing by the force of the storm. They were counted but never named.
When the barge had put to sea the crew discovered there weren’t enough links of chain and scrap iron onboard to weight each of the bodies individually. Some 700 were thrown overboard tied two and three together. Others weren’t weighted at all. The incoming tide washed many of them ashore again.
The grisly work of collecting the dead continued by torchlight. Generous rations of bourbon and strong cigars were issued to the workers. They breathed through handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol and smoked cigars to mask the smell. In the sweltering heat that followed the storm, decomposition was rapid. The bodies soon lost the rigidity of rigor mortis and had to be shoveled into carts. The fixed bayonets of the militia were all that kept many of the men at their work. Superintendents of the work gangs finally gave permission to torch the wreckage wherever they found bodies rather than extricate them.
“It was like living in a battlefield. The fuel-oil smoke hung over the city, day and night, and the heavy air was never free of the smell of carbolic acid, of line, of putrefaction.” (Death from the Sea: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr.) despite the presence of so much death, there were no vultures. The carrion eaters were also victims of the storm.
Looters found despoiling the dead were summarily executed by the militia—stood against the nearest wall or pile of debris if no wall was handy and shot without the hindrance of a trial. The same brutal justice was delivered to amateur photographers. “Word received from Galveston today indicates that Kodak fiends were being shot down like thieves. Two, it was stated, were killed yesterday while taking pictures of nude female bodies.” (Dallas News, September 14, 1900.)