The Deadliest Natural Disaster in U.S. History

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane hit Galveston, an island just off the coast of Texas. To this day, that hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in our nation’s history, with an estimated 8,000 deaths and an almost complete destruction of the city itself. The effect of the Great Galveston Hurricane lasted long after the city was rebuilt. Galveston, which had previously been the largest port city in Texas lost that designation to nearby Houston, and the people and money went with it.

In September 1900, Galveston and its 40,000 residents enjoyed the growth and prosperity of being the leading port city in Texas. While the US Weather Bureau were aware of the storm brewing in the Gulf Coast at the beginning of the month, the hurricane veered last minute toward the Texas coast. They did not have the advanced tracking or communication systems of today, so they were unable to say where the storm might head. Unfortunately, the hurricane proved more violent than anyone had predicted. Winds swirled at 130 mph and a storm surge of over 15 feet swept over the city. As the city flooded, residents sought refuge in the tallest and sturdiest buildings in the city, including the Tremont Hotel and St. Mary’s Infirmary.

The next day, the New York Times reported, “All Texas is in the keenest state of doubt and uncertainty to-night concerning the fate of Galveston Island and city. There is a suspicion that an awful calamity rests behind the lack of information from the Gulf coast. . . bridges leading from the mainland to the island have been swept away by the terrible force of the wind . . . not a wire is working into Galveston, either telegraph or telephone.” Those who were on the island the next day painted a gruesome picture of the state of the city. One such account reads, “On Sunday morning, after the storm was all over, I went out into the streets and the most horrible sights that you can ever imagine. I gazed upon dead bodies lying here and there. The houses all blown to pieces; women, men, and children all walking the streets in a weak condition with bleeding heads and bodies and feet all torn to pieces with glass where they had been treading through the debris of fallen buildings.”

After dealing with the initial devastation, the residents of Galveston Island mustered the strength and courage to rebuild. They raised the entire city, including utilities, businesses, and homes almost 10 feet. They built an impressive 17-foot-tall seawall that stretches now for 10 miles. Despite the resilience shown by the people of Galveston, the city never returned to its former glory. People chose to build their lives and businesses on the mainland, where they felt safer, and Galveston lost its position as main shipping port of Texas to the city of Houston.

Learn more here: