Galveston's Great Storm: A look back at the deadliest storm in U.S. history

GALVESTON, Texas (KTRK) -- In 1900, Galveston was the grandest city in Texas. With one of the busiest commercial ports in the nation, the Galveston Strand was nicknamed the "Wall Street of the South."

But all of that would change forever one fateful day in September.

"Rain was predicted for that weekend," said historian Casey Greene. "But there were no real harbingers. We didn't even have ship-to-shore radio at that time."

The Rosenberg Library in Galveston owns the largest collection of 1900 storm history in the country. There, we got a peek back at Sept. 8, 1900, a day that started like any other.

The people of Galveston had no way of knowing that their beloved city was about to be washed off the map.

"By noon, the surf was pounding," said Greene. "The breakers were so high and so intense that they were actually breaking up the bathhouses."

An enormous hurricane roared onto the island that evening, propelling a 15-foot storm surge with it. With winds estimated at 140 mph, it would have been a Category 4 hurricane in modern terminology.

"Houses and other structures made of wood were being smashed to pieces," said Greene. "Debris was being carried from one block into the next, and just literally smashing into other buildings. People were in those houses and they died."

The Great Storm destroyed everything in its path, leaving a twisted mess of rubble behind. In one heartbreaking tale, nuns who ran St. Mary's orphanage tethered more than 90 children together in an attempt to save their lives. Only three of them survived.

"Every aspect of the city was destroyed," said Greene. "Humans, animals, street cars, street car tracks."

By the time the floodwaters receded, at least 8,000 people had lost their lives and the "Queen City of the Gulf" was obliterated.

But Galveston's unwavering spirit never faded. The vast majority of survivors decided to stay and rebuild.

"Clara Barton actually came to Galveston following the hurricane to build worldwide attention to help with fundraising," said Greene. "The recovery happened quickly."

The city was determined to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening there again. Galveston undertook a massive rebuilding effort, considered to be one of the greatest engineering feats in Texas history.

In 1903, work crews began raising Galveston up, one city block at a time. Workers pumped sand across the island, raising the city's elevation by eight to 17 feet. Jacks were used to raise more than 2,100 buildings, including the 3,000-ton St. Patrick's Church.

Crews also spent two years building a concrete seawall, in order to create a barrier from the Gulf. The initial segment was three miles long, but eventually was extended to 10 miles.

Galveston's extraordinary measures to protect itself from hurricanes worked. In 1915, another Category 4 storm with 135 mile-an-hour winds struck Galveston, this time killing only 11 people.
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