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Weather Almanac for September 2000
WASN'T THAT A MIGHTY STORM?
Music and weather naturally seem to go together. Perhaps it is the rhythm of wind and beat of rain that evokes a natural musical score. Or the variety of emotions weather sounds can engender in each of us. Many of the great classical composers, hearing these natural sounds, wrote pieces with weather such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons, movements in Beethoven's Pastoral symphony and Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite. Popular and folk music have also included weather as a theme: In the Early Morning Rain; Soon It's Gonna Rain; Over the Rainbow. Indeed, many weather events have been remembered in local folk songs, for example, Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
I have always been a folk music fan, from the Folkways collections of Alan Lomax to the more commercial music of groups such as the Kingston Trio and New Christy Minstrels. However, it was only recently when I heard James Taylor perform Eric von Schmidt's song Wasn't That a Mighty Storm? that I realize it had similarities to A Mighty Day, a song made popular by The Chad Mitchell Trio in the late 1960s and the title track from their reunion album in the 1990s. Both songs refer to the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. A Mighty Day begins:
I remember down in Galveston
On September 8th we observe the centennial of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the greatest natural disaster, by number of deaths, in United States history: 8,000 by accepted figures, perhaps as many as 12,000. The tragedy killed more Americans than any other natural disaster, indeed, more than the legendary Johnstown Flood , the San Francisco Earthquake, the 1938 New England Hurricane and the Chicago Fire combined.
In 1900 Galveston was one of the most important cotton markets in America. The population of the city was just around 35,000. Galveston is an island city located on the eastern end of Galveston Island, a sand barrier island about 30 miles long and from 1.5 to 3 miles in width between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Its peak elevation is about 8.7 feet above sea level.
At the time of this storm, most people feared the fury of the winds, but, as we now know, the storm surge is the most deadly force. Most Galvestonians died from the great storm surge that rolled across the barrier island and over the city at high tide. The surge, which struck at highest tide, was estimated at 15-20 feet above normal sea level.
There was a sea-wall there in Galveston
"Unusually heavy swells from the southeast, intervals of one to five minutes, overflowing low places south portion of city three to four blocks from beach. Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously." Isaac Cline, Galveston Weather Office Director
"By twelve o'clock the wind had increased in violence to between forty and fifty miles an hour, blowing from the north, and the water, both in the bay and Gulf, was very high and still rising. At one o'clock I visited the wharf front. The wind had shifted to a point or two east of north, and was over fifty miles an hour. The bay water was over the wharves and was slowly encroaching on the Strand. All low places were completely inundated. From the bay I went to the Gulf side, and found the tide very high and the water very rough. At two o'clock I concluded to go home and look after things there. My residence was on the northeast corner of Avenue P1/2 and Bath Avenue. As both P1/2 and Bath avenues were low at that point, my sidewalk had been curbed up about four feet and the whole lot raised four or five feet above the level of the street. When I got home I found about two feet of water on my lot. I sat on my front gallery [a two-story veranda] and watched the water. It rose gradually until the third step was underwater, when it apparently stopped rising and for over an hour remained stationary." Dr. Samuel O. Young, Secretary of the Galveston Cotton Exchange and Board of Trade
The Galveston Weather Office Director, Dr Isaac M. Cline saw ominous signs on the horizon: a falling barometer and rising seas. "Soon after 3 p.m. conditions became so threatening that it was deemed essential that a special report be sent at once to Washington," reported Cline.
The trumpets warned the people,
As the storm rolled in on this island city, it pushed Gulf waters high over the shore on hurricane winds. Many now tried in vain to seek better shelter. But the waters rose to chest-deep and higher, reaching the upper floors of buildings before tearing the buildings from their foundation and sending them crashing inland. Leaving a building meant death by drowning, to stay courted death in its wreckage.
The waters, like some river,
"Every street corner has its story, in its history of misery and human agony bravely endured. The eye-witnesses of a hundred deaths have talked to me and told me their heart rendering stories, and not one of them has told of a cowardly death." Paul Lester, The Great Galveston Disaster
The combination of wind and water utterly destroyed most of the homes near the shoreline. Blocks of residential area were swept clean of buildings. Whole families perished in the few hours the storm raged across the city. In many cases, only one family member survived.
"Mrs P. Watkins is a raving maniac as a result of her experiences. With her two children and her mother she was drifting on a roof, when her mother and one child were swept away. Mrs Watkins mistakes attendants in the hospital for her lost relatives and clutches wildly for them." Paul Lester, The Great Galveston Disaster
Now death, your hands are icy;
"Dead bodies of women and children who had succumbed to the inevitable in the early part of the storm, and the men and women whom the waters had not yet killed, but were playing with like a cat does a mouse before hurling them into the beyond, were carried hither and thither." Paul Lester, The Great Galveston Disaster
Being an island city, evacuation to higher ground was difficult, if not impossible for the citizens of Galveston. Even the railroads fell victim to the storm.
The trains they all were loaded
The Santa Fe train did leave Galveston at 7:55 pm, the evening of the storm, but it was wrecked at a point about two miles north of Alvin. The train was literally lifted from the track by the storm winds. A relief train tried to reach the city but could not get past La Marque six miles short of the connecting ferry as the tracks between there and Galveston were washed out. At the height of the storm, the rail bridge across Galveston Bay collapsed.
The Galveston, Houston and Henderson Railroad train into the city was one of the last to cross the Galveston Bay bridge into the city. But it was a shaky crossing.
"When we crossed the bridge over Galveston Bay, going into Galveston, the water had reached an elevation equal to the bottom caps of the pile bents, or two feet below the level of the track." A.V. Kellogg, Civil Engineer and passenger
But the G,H&H train would not make it to its destination, for flooding from the Bay had washed out the tracks ahead. By the time a relief train arrived on the adjacent tracks of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe, the waters covered the rains around the original train. In pelting rain, the passengers waded to the relief cars.
Nearly a foot of rushing water covered the tracks, and the turbulent stream rushing past caused the rails to wriggle like a fleeing snake. And it continued to rise, washing houses against the tracks. Finally, the rising waters reached the firebox of the locomotive and extinguished its flame. The train ceased motion just shy of the Santa Fe depot, and passengers detrained into waist-deep water, scurrying to shelter in the Tremont Hotel.
The situation on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico were no less perilous. The hurricane tracked over the Gulf from the Florida Keys to its landfall at Galveston.
The seas began to rolling,
Captain J.W. Simmons of the steamer Pensacola, en route home from Galveston, met the storm on the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As the barometer fell to 28.55 inches, he struggled to keep his vessel afloat in towering seas. Each great rise and fall of white water brought the 2,000 ton steel-hulled ship closer to disintegration. But when the winds and seas finally abated, the Pensacola had survived.
Wasn't That A Mighty Storm?
"There is not a house in Galveston that escaped injury, and there are houses totally wrecked in all parts of the city. All goods and supplies not over eight feet above floor were badly injured, and much was totally lost. The damage to buildings, personal, and other property in Galveston County is estimated at above thirty million dollars. The insurance inspector for Galveston states that there were 2,636 residences located prior to the hurricane in the area of total destruction, and he estimates 1,000 houses totally destroyed in other portions of the city, making a total of 3,636 houses totally destroyed. The value of these buildings alone is estimated at $5,500,000." Isaac M. Cline, Special Report on The Galveston Hurricane of September 8, 1900
"Words are too weak to express the horror, the awfulness of the storm itself, to even faintly picture the scene of devastation, wreck and ruin, misery, suffering and grief....The mind cannot comprehend all the horrors, can not learn or know all the dreadful particulars....One stands speechless and powerless to relate even that which he has felt and knows." Paul Lester, The Great Galveston Disaster
Perhaps only through song can the true emotional impact of that storm ever be expressed. As the chorus of A Mighty Day continually reminds us:
It was a mighty day, a mighty day
The Cold Facts of the Great Galveston Hurricane
For Further Information
For more information on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, see these articles:
The full text of Isaac Cline's storm report appeared in Monthly Weather Review (September 1900): Special Report on The Galveston Hurricane of September 8, 1900.Finally, The Weather Notebook has devoted three programs to the event:
The New York of the Gulf
The Sad Tale of Isaac Cline
No Warning In Galveston
The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 has also been documented in several books over the past few years. Two are reviewed in the Reviews section of The Weather Doctor.
Isaac Cline's 1945 book Storms, Floods and Sunshine: An Autobiography recounts his life story including memories of the storm that took his wife, destroyed his home and nearly killed Isaac, his daughters and his brother Joseph.
Isaac's Storm is a recent historical account of the devastation, much of it centered around Dr Isaac M. Cline, the Director of the Galveston Weather Office at the time of the tragedy. (The book relates the story every bit as gripping as The Perfect Storm.)
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