Galveston Flood

Galveston flood wreckage
Galveston flood wreckage

In 1900 Galveston, located on an island in the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles southeast of Houston, was Texas's fourth-largest city and a bustling port. On September 8 a presumed Category 4 hurricane, accompanied by ferocious tidal surges, smashed into Galveston, killing at least 6,000 of its 38,000 residents and possibly twice as many. Some 10,000 lost their homes. These fatalities make it still the worst single disaster in U.S. history.

Although the storm had wiped out Galveston's rail link to the mainland, recovery began almost immediately, spearheaded by city officials, who appointed a relief committee on September 9, and the American Red Cross, under the leadership of 78-year-old Clara Barton, who arrived September 17.

Restoring water and telegraph services was the first priority. By the third week saloons and the port had reopened, even as dead bodies continued to wash up on the island for at least a month after the disaster.

Armed with federal, state, and private donations, the people of Galveston mounted a hugely expensive project to protect the low-lying 27-mile-long island from future hurricanes. A 17-foot-high seawall was built along the island's Gulf Coast. (By the 1960s its length had grown to more than 10 miles.) In 1902 Galveston launched an even more ambitious project designed to boost the island's overall elevation above sea level. In eight years some 500 city blocks were raised.

Some 16 million cubic yards of sand were dredged from the Gulf of Mexico and pumped onto the island, where workers used jacks to raise structures, including utilities, and then shoveled the sand underneath. Most of the city is now 15 feet higher than its preflood level. A major hurricane in 1915 flooded much of the city, but that time Galveston survived.

The catastrophe had mixed effects on Galveston residents as they struggled to restore their way of life. In 1901 Galveston replaced its city government with five commissioners appointed by Texas's governor. Soon known as the Galveston Plan, this progressive municipal reform was seen as a way to supplant local cronyism with expertise and was widely imitated.

Seeking valuable in the wreckage
Seeking valuable in the wreckage

Although the Red Cross tried to deal fairly with African-American flood survivors, many of them homeless, bogus stories of black violence, thievery, and refusal to join in recovery efforts circulated in the smitten city.

As the city recovered, Jim Crow restrictions intensified, and African-American political power was further weakened. Galveston would never again compete with archrival Houston or any other major city. Remade as a resort town, Galveston for years wooed tourists with night spots, big-name entertainment, and illegal gambling.

By 1904 the disaster at Galveston had been turned into an entertainment attraction, both at the St. Louis World's Fair and at Brooklyn's Coney Island amusement park, where paying patrons could view a simulation of the destruction. In 1960 folk musician Tom Rush published and later recorded "Wasn't It a Mighty Storm," a song that sensitively portrayed the horror of the September day "when death come howling on the ocean/death calls, you gotta go."