Over the past week or so, we in West Virginia have been subjected to the force of the tail end of Hurricane Ida. It brought us strong winds, heavy rain and some flooding. This wasn’t unexpected; indeed, the governor issued a state of emergency for all 55 counties the day before it reached us — but as it turned out, it wasn’t quite as bad as was expected.
Other states fared far worse than we did; Pennsylvania and New York to the northeast of us felt the storm’s fury with widespread flooding. Both of these states have reported that some people lost their lives due to incidents related to the storm.
Those states that are on the south coast suffered most, of course, with Louisiana taking the full force as the hurricane made landfall. There have been several deaths down there, too, coupled with widespread power outages, hundreds of homes destroyed and many more damaged, with costs running into billions of dollars. People had to evacuate before the storm reached them, and now many are returning to find all that they owned is now gone.
Ida was bad, but, thankfully, it didn’t cause the devastation that Hurricane Katrina did in the same area just 16 years ago. That storm caused more than 1,800 deaths, most of them in New Orleans and Louisiana. At the time, damage was estimated at $81 billion, while the cost of repairing facilities was put at $160 billion. At today’s prices, the damage caused by Hurricane Ida may come to much more than that.
Katrina was said to be the worst hurricane to hit the USA for 77 years, but it wasn’t the worst on record; for that one, we need to go back 121 years.
The city of Galveston is on low-lying Galveston Island, in a bay of the same name just off the southeastern coast of Texas. It was a prosperous, growing place in the late 19th century and was considered the most important trading port in Texas in 1900. Its population numbered 38,000 at that time, and they enjoyed one of the highest average income rates in the entire United States.
Life was good for the people of Galveston but, in late August of 1900, a tropical storm developed off the west coast of Africa and began moving westward toward the Caribbean. It was reported by ships as it approached the area and first touched land in the Dominican Republic, where it was recorded as a “weak tropical storm” on Sept. 2. It continued moving slowly northwest, clearing the coast of Cuba on Sept. 6. That was when it started to gain strength.
There was an office of the Weather Bureau, as it was then known, in Galveston and they received the first warnings of a storm moving northward over Cuba on Sept. 4. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Spanish-American War, weather reports from Cuba were blocked and the Bureau’s forecasters in Washington believed the storm was turning northeast to cross Florida before dissipating back in the Atlantic. They issued storm warnings for Florida and the next day, they followed these with hurricane warnings as far north as the coast of Georgia, with additional storms forecast in Louisiana and the Carolinas. The forecasters in Cuba disagreed with their assessment however, and insisted the storm would continue northwest toward central Texas.
In Galveston, Sept. 8 dawned with partially cloudy skies and rough seas. It started dry but then the rain clouds began to gather. Few people tried to move out of the storm’s path, even after the local weather bureau finally issued a hurricane warning despite not having permission to do so from their head office. The warning was too late, anyway; the wind suddenly picked up, reaching more than 140 mph at its peak. The rain came and then the tidal surge hit.
It is estimated that the wave that smashed into the shore line was around 15 1/2 feet high. At that time, the highest dry land in the city of Galveston was little more than 8 feet above sea level. Beachfront homes were crushed in moments, their debris crashing into houses behind them and hitting the crowds of people trying to flee to more substantial buildings in the center of the city.
The devastation was unbelievable. The number of killed by the storm range from 6,000 to 12,000, with most experts agreeing on a number somewhere in the middle of these figures. The dead were so numerous that hundreds were loaded on barges and buried at sea — but when bodies began to wash ashore again, massive funeral pyres were built on the beach and these burned for weeks. Over 7,000 buildings were destroyed, including at least 3,500 homes, and some 10,000 people were left homeless. Many of them were forced to live on the beach in US Army tents until wreckage could be cleared and homes rebuilt.
The hurricane was not finished after it devastated the island. It turned toward the northeast and carved a path of destruction across the midwest before moving on through New England, the eastern provinces of Canada and out into the Atlantic, where its last remnants were reported on Sept. 15 near Iceland.
The Galveston hurricane has gone down as the most devastating in American history in terms of loss of life. It destroyed Galveston’s booming economy and many of the survivors moved on, never to return. Those that stayed built a large seawall that prevented another hurricane from doing as much damage just 15 years later. That wasn’t the last of these storms to create havoc on our shores; if we include those mentioned above, there have been approximately 215 hurricanes recorded as hitting the US, starting with the Galveston one. At least 10 of these are listed as “severe,” resulting in massive damage and loss of life.
Despite living in a city called Hurricane, I could not find any record of one happening here, principally because we are landlocked and far from the coast. We do get the winds and the rain as they blow through, but not the devastation they cause. That being so, perhaps at times like these we should spare a prayer and a thought for our fellow Americans who balance their lives on the beach, in the sunshine and near the ocean with the recurring threat of the next of these storms.