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A look back at the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

A large part of the city of Galveston, Texas was reduced to rubble, as shown in this September 1900 photo, after being hit by a surprise hurricane Sept. 8, 1900.
A large part of the city of Galveston, Texas was reduced to rubble, as shown in this September 1900 photo, after being hit by a surprise hurricane Sept. 8, 1900. (Associated Press)

GALVESTON, Texas – The deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States happened at the turn of the 20th century in Galveston.

On Sept. 8, 1900, way before hurricanes were given names, a monster storm slammed into the port city where more than 40,000 people lived. Winds of more than 135 mph, which would make the storm a Category 4 by modern-day standards, devastated Galveston.

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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the storm, which is now known as the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, killed more than 6,000 people, destroyed more than 3,600 buildings and pushed 15 feet of water ashore.

It reshaped Galveston

Before the hurricane, Galveston was a booming port city and was on track to become one of the largest cities in Texas.

The hurricane left Galveston in shambles, but leaders were determined to get the city back on its feet. The wharves were open only two weeks after the storm, according to a 2002 report by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank.

Galveston’s 17-foot seawall was built in response to the storm, and the island’s elevation was raised in an effort to prevent future flooding.

It reshaped the region

Years before the storm hit, a Houston lawmaker proposed digging a channel for Buffalo Bayou and creating a port in the Bayou City. People who opposed the project said they didn’t see the point of creating another port only 50 miles away from Galveston.

After the 1900 hurricane, many said Galveston was too vulnerable to play host to such an important part of the region’s infrastructure. Opposition to the channel project disappeared and, by 1914, Houston had become the main port for the region.

With the shift in economic development came a shift in the population. Nearly 40,000 people lived in both Galveston and Houston in 1900. By 1910, Galveston’s population dropped to just under 37,000 people, while Houston’s population jumped to nearly 79,000.

It reshaped hurricane prediction

After the Great Galveston Hurricane, meteorologists began to focus on the study of predicting hurricanes.

In 1900, local forecasters basically used direct observations -- such as wind direction, speed, cloud formations and air pressure -- to determine if a tropical system was moving toward the region.

Within a decade of the Galveston hurricane, meteorologists were harnessing the power of technology to help better predict devastating storms. Landline telegraphs and radio reports from ships helped develop the basis of a real-time observation network, according to Phys.org.

By 1943, forecasters were beginning to use aircraft to fly into storms and gather better information.


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