Written by KC Wildmoon and Originally Published in CNN on September 12, 2008.
The worst weather disaster in American history took place in Galveston, Texas, in 1900 when a hurricane estimated as a Category 4 intensity blew ashore, killing thousands of residents and obliterating the town.
The unnamed storm was first detected in the Atlantic on August 27, reaching Cuba as a tropical storm on September 3. Like Ike, the hurricane crossed Cuba and entered the Gulf of Mexico, crashing ashore just south of Galveston on September 8.
Galveston Island was completely covered by 8- to 16-foot storm tides. Estimates of the death toll range from 6,000 to 12,000, and property damage was estimated at $30 million.
Galveston in 1900 was a rich shipping city, home to nearly 40,000 people, many of them made wealthy by Galveston's position as Texas' chief port. But they weren't prepared for September 8.
The floodwaters began rising before dawn that morning, and initially the people of Galveston thought nothing of it. For the most part, they even ignored the warnings of U.S. Weather Service meteorologist Isaac Cline, who took to his horse and rode up and down the beach warning people to seek higher ground, an urging that ultimately meant little to a city 8 to 9 feet above sea level at its highest point.
"In reality, there was no island, just the ocean with houses standing out of the waves which rolled between them," Cline wrote in his 1945 memoirs.
Ironically, Cline had argued against building a sea wall in Galveston, saying it was unnecessary and that a storm of any significant strength, in any event, would never strike the island.
The gargantuan storm tides collapsed houses along the beach front and turned them into a wall of debris that pushed further inland on the island. At its final stopping point, the debris kept buildings beyond it from collapse, but not from damage. In the aftermath, everything was bulldozed for 15 blocks from the beach.
Photographs could only begin to tell the story of the destruction. Haunting black-and-white images show residents searching through ruins with only a peaked gable to indicate that it was once a home, a house picked up from its foundations and shoved 30 yards away, a body half buried in the debris. Several clips of film exist of the devastation, as well. Black and white and silent, they record the search for bodies and the complete devastation wrought by the hurricane.
Many of the storm's victims were washed out to sea, and many more were taken out to sea and dumped. But those bodies came back to shore with the tides. The city set about burning the bodies on funeral pyres that blazed for weeks. News accounts at the time record the stench of death that hovered over the remains of the city.
The destruction was so complete that word of the aftermath could not reach the outside world. Telegraph lines and bridges to the mainland were all down. Messengers aboard one of the few ships to survive the storm reached Houston on September 10, sending a short message to the Texas governor and U.S. President William McKinley. "The city of Galveston is in ruins," the message said, estimating 500 dead.
But Galveston was revitalized in the aftermath of the storm, as well. A sea wall was built. The city was elevated 16 feet at the seawall, sloping downward across the 32-mile-long, 2 1/2-mile-wide island to the bay on the other side.
Today, Galveston is a vibrant city and a popular tourist destination with a population approaching 60,000. Although it never regained its high status as a shipping port, Galveston is still a port of call for cargo ships and now for cruise ships, as well.