[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.)
The first people who lived on Puget Sound lived lightly on the edge of the land, mostly on the coast. They didn’t travel far from the shore where mountains were piled like shards of flint and old growth forests layered the ground with the bones of trees once 200 feet tall, where narrow valleys carved by the sharp edge of ice through winters that lasted a thousand years were a succession of bogs and swamps and wet grass meadows, where streams were a clutter of sloughs and islands and beaver ponds and driftwood snags and rivers were blocked with driftwood dams so massively built they persisted for hundreds of years.
The first people lived lightly and within their means. Those who followed, the ones who ‘settled’ the land as if it were unruly and needed restraint, didn’t see the land as it was but as it might be. They saw the opportunity of shaping the land in their own image, optimizing it for their own use. It was their manifest destiny, their biblical imperative.
First were the loggers who felled the old growth forests moving inland from the water’s edge. They cleared the beaver ponds from streams and built splash dams to raise the water level, floating downed trees to the saw mills. Then came the men who sweated and sawed and dynamited the logjams to allow steamboats and rafts to navigate the rivers. South on the Willamette above Corvallis, Oregon more than 5,500 driftwood logs were pulled from a 50-mile length of river. The driftwood measured 5 to 9 feet in diameter, 90 to 120 feet in length, and maybe 500 to 700 pounds per foot dry weight.
The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined.
On the Skagit River in Washington driftwood was piled like windfall 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide. The Stillaguamish River was blocked by six logjams from the head of tidewater for 17 miles upriver. Dead trees were so large, so numerous, and so deeply embedded in the river bottom that a steam snag boat hammered and hauled and labored for 6 months to open a channel only 100 feet wide.
The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined. The wetlands were drained by the farmers that followed. Less than 10% of the historic wetlands and floodplains of Puget Sound remain. By most contemporary opinions it was a good thing. Fallow land was made productive. Forests were harvested like crops. Isolated communities were connected by river traffic. But all the wood removed from the water that seemed such a nuisance at the time had served a purpose that wasn’t recognized for another hundred years.
When water approaches an obstruction in the current like a driftwood dam it begins to well from hydraulic back pressure. The raised water tops the river banks and onto the floodplain, creating side channels and backwaters, habitat for fish. It spills over the obstruction forming a plunge pool. The deeper pool allows fish to remain cool in the heat of summer and protects them from predators. Numerous species of salmon and trout live in the same pool, each occupying different layers defined by water temperature and granularity of sediment, accommodating different species of fish or even the same species in different sages of its life-cycle. Where the current rushes around the edge of the driftwood a stream of vortexes form at the boundary of still water like pinwheels on parade, providing nutrients for the inhabitants of the pool. The driftwood dam raises the water level in the river, especially during times of low water when fish are stressed and struggle to survive.
…the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer.
None of this was known a hundred years ago. Even the wildlife managers responsible for the health of salmon and trout populations cleared deadwood from rivers and streams, genuinely convinced they were helping with upstream migrations and breeding, unaware that they were tampering with the deposition of sediment and the spawning grounds of the very species they were trying to promote.
On the Ozette River west of the Olympic Mountains the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer. After 26 large log jams were removed from the river the salmon populations crashed. Some will likely never recover.
Simplicity isn’t always a solution. Mirroring Einstein, a thing should be as complex as necessary, and no more.
Life is messy. Trying to clean it up, remove the clutter, straighten what’s crooked, smooth what’s rugged and irregular isn’t likely to make it better, even for ourselves. Optimizing the land for our own use above all others has reduced the land’s resilience and replaced it with a system that’s robust but fragile. We squeeze from the land every bit of efficiency possible, much like we do our companies and ourselves. The danger of such extreme efficiency is its proximity to disaster. It only takes a slight push from a highly optimized system to push it over the edge into chaos.
Hood Canal Bridge. Photo attribution: timtim 011 on Flickr.com.
The Hood Canal is a narrow body of water extending about 50 miles from its entrance at Foulweather Bluff, past a hard turn to the northeast at The Great Bend, and another 15 miles to the shallow tideland at Lynch Cove. It has an average width of 1.5 miles, a mean depth of 177 feet, 212 miles of shoreline, a surface area of 148 square miles, and it’s spanned by a mythical bridge.
Certainly the Hood Canal Bridge has a concrete reality, not to mention construction. It’s supported by cement pontoons that float, mostly, above a depth of water between 80 and 340 feet, water subject to a tidal range as much as 18 feet. It spans the 7,869 feet between the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas. Together the two spans weigh almost 5,000 tons. You can find all that on Wikipedia. But the bridge floats upon a fjord, has foundered and been refloated, and even its current reconstruction has resurrected the dead.
A Historical Misnomer
Hood Canal Bridge from a distance. Photo attribution: keistersmom on flicker.com.
But first, a bit of background. The Hood Canal was named by Captain George Vancouver, one of the first cartographers to Puget Sound and therefore entitled to name things indiscriminately. Of course, those same things had been named by the people who already lived here but, frankly, they weren’t English. Vancouver named it after Samuel Hood, Lord of the Admiralty and one of Britain’s few competent commanders during the American Revolution. Actually, he named it twice—Hood Canal and Hood Channel. Both were wrong.
Outside of Puget Sound,
bridges rarely float.
A canal is an artificial waterway used either for navigation or transporting fresh water. A channel is typically a navigable passage between larger bodies of water. The Hood Canal was shaped by glaciation utterly without the help of humans. It doesn’t connect one body of water with another. It’s an inlet or, more exactly, a fjord. And a fjord, to restate the obvious, is a valley carved by ice and drowned by the sea. The fact that it’s called Hood Canal has led to some puzzlement in other parts of the world. In Puget Sound, we’ve gotten over it.
Bridges usually soar above an obstruction. Outside of Puget Sound, they rarely float. There is a floating bridge that across Dubai Creek (who knew they had creeks in Dubai?) but it’s temporary. And until 1992, a floating bridge spanned the Golden Horn in Istanbul. But the only other part of the world to make common use of floating bridges is Norway where they have even more fjords than Puget Sound.
The Hood Canal Bridge in a breeze. Photo attribution: Chimacum Joy on flickr.com
The Hood Canal Bridge hasn’t always floated. Eighteen years after it had been launched, it sank in a storm. Sustained winds of 85 mph scoured the Hood Canal. Gusts of 120 mph buffeted the bridge. Pontoons lost their anchorhold and drifted free. Hatches were blown open, pontoons filled with water and sank. The western half of the bridge to the drawspan foundered. It was three years before the damage was repaired. And it’s not the only time a local bridge has sank.
The lifespan of a bridge floating in salt water is longer than that of a Portuguese water dog but less than a Galapagos tortoise. Fewer than thirty years after its resurrection, the bridge builders began building its replacement. In those intervening years the population of Puget Sound has blossomed like pond scum and the industrial waterfront succumbed to gentrification. There was no place near Seattle to build the massive pontoons. Instead, Port Angeles was chosen.
Port Angeles was much further from the Hood Canal than Seattle but had the advantage of poverty. Since the timber industry and commercial fishing had shriveled, there was plenty of waterfront property available in Port Angeles and a desperate desire to utilize it. The people of Port Angeles saw the construction as their bridge to prosperity. But when the construction equipment began clearing away the industrial remnants of the timber industry from the shore of Ediz Hook, they began unearthing bones. Human bones. A lot of them.
Village of the Dead
It was Tse-whit-zen, the ancestral village of the Klallam people occupying the Lower Elwha River. The Klallam had lived on Ediz Hook for generations prior to first contact with Spanish explorers in the 1770s. Then they began to die from smallpox, influenza and measles. They had no immunity, no protection. Entire villages of First Peoples were decimated throughout the Pacific Northwest. In some places there was no one left alive to bury the dead. There may have been 3,200 Klallam before 1770; by 1880 there were 485.
The ruins of Tse-whit-zen. Photo attribution: nwpainter on flickr.com
At Tse-whit-zen, the dead were stacked like cordwood. They embraced one another, husband and wife, mother and child. Among the dead was a mother with an unborn child in her womb. There was no ceremony in their burial. They were hurried into the ground by the few who remained alive but those few may have taken revenge upon the shaman and medicine men who failed them. Skeletons were found beheaded, buried face down, their hands covering their face.
The Washington State Department of Transportation finally abandoned the site have disinterring 335 intact skeletons. The construction equipment fell silent, the workers left, and the dead reclaimed their land. The bridge was built in Tacoma.
A Mythical Bridge
The bridge spans more than the Hood fjord. It’s footed in time as well as space. It guards the western approach to a land that is itself mythical, a land form by the c
ollision of the sea and the shore where mountains rise like stone waves, forests are entangled in cloud, and people hunt whales with clam shells.