1900 hurricane changed Galveston, forecasting

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It's known simply as The Great Storm of 1900, and it was the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States.

At least 6,000 people on the 30-mile-long by 3-mile wide strip of sand along the southeast Texas coastline were killed -- one-sixth of the city's population. Another 10,000 were left homeless. More than 3,600 buildings were destroyed by a 16-foot storm surge fueled by 150 mph winds.

Bonnie Rice, 74, a retired caterer, was born on Galveston Island and has lived there all her life.

"My grandmother's family went in two boats to safety -- one made it, the other didn't," she said Friday. "My grandfather's family lived down the island and they tied themselves down to two trees. One blew away, the other didn't.

"So yes, this does make me think of it. I'm just in awe of God's nature. He can do such powerful things."

Rice was taking pictures of massive waves breaking over the seawall and crashing around a memorial to those who died in the infamous 1900 storm. But that legacy alone -- and her own family's part in it -- wasn't enough to persuade her to leave.

As massive Hurricane Ike roars toward the southeast Texas coast on Friday, meteorologists across the country remember the tragedy they say could have been avoided.

"It does send shudders through some of us," said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Galveston was far and large the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. ... It was such a horrible tragedy that in some ways, was needless, because people could have been warned, even in the primitive technology at the time."

The forecaster on duty in Galveston back then, Isaac Cline, had tried to issue a warning, Emanuel said.

"His hands were tied rather badly by the Washington bureaucracy," Emanuel said. "The U.S. Weather Bureau had forbidden Cline from issuing his own hurricane warning, it had to go through Washington first.

"He understood a hurricane was coming, but his hands were tied."

At the time, Cubans had become expert hurricane forecasters and had established "the very first hurricane observation network." But just three weeks before the deadly storm, the federal government sent out an edict that meteorological information from Cuba to the U.S. was forbidden.

"That one was a confluence of a lot of silly politics," he said.

After the flood, which claimed his wife and their unborn baby, Cline "was instrumental in agitating for a more advanced network of observations," Emanuel said.

"He realized that the whole business of collecting meteorological information was by its very nature international," Emanuel said. "He called for an internationally run network to eliminate squabbling between nations."

His endeavor was eventually successful and has evolved into the complex forecasting system that warned coastal residents this week that failure to evacuate could result in "certain death."

Slightly more than half heeded the warning.

By midday Friday, before the first drops of rain even had begun to fall, waves fueled by Ike surged 15 feet above the 17-foot-high seawall constructed after the Great Storm.

The nearly 11-mile-long ribbon of granite has so far done its job, even when faced with other storms -- Carla, Alicia, Claudette, Rita.

National weather officials weren't willing to take the chance that it would spare Galveston the wrath of Ike.

Not all of the island is behind the sea wall and several communities would be left unprotected, said Gene Hafele, the region's chief meteorologist.

Hafele says that even though most residents have lived through dozens of hurricanes, most have never seen a storm surge like the one expected to wash over Galveston with Hurricane Ike and might therefore underestimate the severity of the looming flood.

That concern prompted the local office of the National Weather Service to issue the rare warning that folks in some areas may "face certain death," if they don't evacuate.

The dire words are built in to the NWS software, but have only been used twice in recent memory, Hafele said -- this week for Ike and in 2005 before Hurricane Katrina barreled ashore near New Orleans.

The rare warning issued Thursday and repeated Friday struck fear in coastal residents all over southeast Texas. But Hafele said the necessity of conveying the severity of the situation overshadowed the risk of stirring widespread panic, he said.

"What have they ever experienced," Hafele asked. "They hear about storm surge, but probably one percent of the people in the area have ever experienced anything like this."

An expected storm surge of more than 16 feet would put much of the island under water.

But the dire warning wasn't enough to spur Clarence Romas to evacuate the low-lying island.

Having lived in Galveston 37 years, Romas says he has survived plenty of hurricanes.

"I've been through hurricanes," Romas, 55, said from outside his apartment while sitting on a lawnchair. "I've been through Carla, Alicia -- I've been through all of them and I never got out of town for no hurricane."

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