The Texas Gulf Coast and Galveston are no strangers to storms. On the 4th of September 1766, a massive hurricane made landfall near Galveston and produced a storm surge of about 7 feet, flooding the coastline and destroying a Catholic mission on the lower Trinity River while it also also washed five treasure ships ashore. There had been previous storms in the Gulf of Mexico’s European colonial era, but because settlement was so sparse, it is impossible to know how many and where they hit. What records have been uncovered indicate that among the biggest was a November 1527 storm that destroyed a merchant fleet on Galveston Island and killed at least 162 people, then in November 1590, a hurricane in the Gulf killed thousands aboard ships and on the 21st of October 1631 a hurricane killed more than 300 people in the Gulf region.
Before Texas became a state Jean Lafitte had built a fine, two-story brick haven half home, half fort, with excellent living quarters for himself and rooms for his fellow gentlemen of adventure, as well as a barracks for his men. Cannon barrels protruded from its roof commanding the entrance to the Gulf and around it sprang warehouses, slave quarters, cattle pens, taverns and shacks to house his crews. On the 20th of September 1818 a hurricane struck the island killing hundreds of men, flattening the settlement, sinking the fleet and washing contraband to sea. It was a devastatingly financial setback and spoiled Laffite’s pirate encampment on Galveston Island forever.
The Racer’s Storm, named after the British ship HMS RACER, was first observed in the Western Caribbean near Jamaica on the 28th of September 1837. It moved to the west and hit the Yucatán Peninsula and then entered the Gulf of Mexico. It journeyed westward and hit extreme northeastern Mexico near Matamoros, Tamaulipas, on the 2nd of October, stalled, and then drifted northwestward towards Brownsville where it destroyed all of the ships in the Brazos Santiago harbor, as well as the entire town with heavy winds and storm surge. It reemerged close to Matagorda Bay on the 4th. On the 5th of October the hurricane passed Galveston where it brought a 6 to 7 feet storm surge that, in combination with the winds and rain, destroyed nearly every house on the island. The storm would continue wrecking havoc at New Orleans where Lake Ponchatrain rose 8 feet and the entire city was flooded before finally moving offshore near Charleston only to make a final landfall at Wilmington where the ss HOME was sunk by the storm with a loss of 90 people.
Five years later Galveston was hit twice – on the 17th of September and the 5th of October 1842 and while no lives were lost parts of the city were tossed about like “pieces of a toy town,” a ship in the harbor was sunk and livestock drowned. Another September storm struck Texas in 1854 between Galveston and Matagorda and Matagorda was leveled, Houston sustained major losses from wind and flooding and heavy damage was reported at Lynchburg, San Jacinto, Velasco, Quintana, Brazoria, Columbia, and Sabine Pass.
On a track closely resembling the Racer’s storm the entire Texas coast felt the hurricane of 1867, which entered the state south of Galveston on the 3rd of October. Bagdad and Clarksville, at the mouth of the Rio Grande, were flattened, while Galveston was flooded with the surge causing a loss in excess of $1 million. On the 16th of September 1875, a hurricane washed away three-fourths of the buildings in Indianola, Calhoun County, and killed 176 people. Five years later, on the 12th-13th of October 1880, a tropical storm nearly destroyed Brownsville with a heavy loss of life and Indianola was struck again on the 19th-20th of August 1886 by a storm that destroyed or damaged every structure and led to the town’s abandonment.
This week hurricane Isaac surged ashore with tides and waves in the Mississippi Delta below New Orleans and wound its cyclonic way north dropping rain and spawning tornadoes and leaving devastation and misery in its wake. Although it will make no difference whatsoever to those who suffer in the wake of this storm we have, through satellites, been able to track it from the African coast as it developed as a wave, then a depression, intensifying to a storm and finally roaring towards us as a hurricane and will keep on tracking it until the last rain shower falls someplace over Appalachia. The ability to track these storms has saved innumerable lives but where, when and how severely they will strike is still not in our ability to control – and likely never will be.
One hundred and twelve years ago Isaac’s Storm came ashore on Galveston Island on the Saturday night September 8, 1900 and was the worst natural catastrophe in American History and it arrived in its fury without any warning. Without any respect for persons or property it nearly scraped the people off their tenuously held sand bar and would change the island forever. The unexpected heroes – the mother superior at the Ursuline Academy who tolled the bell and guided 1,500 people to the safety of its walls, the nuns at the orphanage who tied ten children apiece to themselves and were swept out to sea when their frame buildings on the beach washed away and the monsignor, who was also an army chaplain, who took over the relief the morning after the storm hit and kept the island in order until help arrived are only three of the stories that we grew up on.
There are hundreds of other stories but the storm was of such magnitude and so profoundly affected people that it was a singular catastrophe – and most who have been through such an event really don’t talk about it. It has either strengthened their faith to the point that they know it is not something to share with others or they know they have been tried and found wanting and are as afraid to talk about it as they were to experience it. Probably for most it is equal parts of both. This was before the time when every experience had to be transformed into a public emotional emetic when people were wise enough to know that a little secret knowledge of themselves was healthy for themselves and the people around them. We are not going to relate stories in this post. Instead we are going to share pictures that come from the Library of Congress collection and let them tell the stories. We warn the reader many of these are intense but by the time you get to the end of this post you will know there is no such thing as a small storm.
Horse-drawn carts for food delivery, protected by armed guards, outside the Commissary in Galveston, Texas.
Men carrying body on stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood, Galveston, Texas.
A public school – school had started on Monday, September 3 – five days before the storm.
Large double-decked boat filled to capacity with people leaving Galveston, Texas following the hurricane of 1900.
For as many that left many stayed and began the process of rebuilding. The Galveston Daily News was publishing within the week and was advertising for workers. Nobody sat around counting their losses, moaning and waiting to be saved.
Eighteenth street and Avenue N
Galveston 1900 – Tremont St. & Ave P
Wrecked rail yard
God’s gift to the young – resilience – boy, sitting on debris in the wake of the 1900 hurricane, Galveston, Texas. He told the photographer, ” I’m glad I’m living.”
Men carrying body of victim of hurricane and flood for burning to large open fire, Galveston, Texas. Hundreds were buried at sea, hundreds more cremated. The very real fear of disease meant that the dead received the necessary benedictions but very little ceremony.
The dead left by the receding flood, 33 rd St. and Avenue M, Galveston, Texas – Two dead bodies lie in the debris following a violent hurricane which devastated most of Galveston and took more than 5,000 lives on the island and probably that many more in the coastal plain.
Missed!–A deaf looter at Galveston escapes temporarily a deserved fate – A “deaf” thief removing a ring from the hand of a dead victim of a hurricane and flood, Galveston, Texas.
Two women search through rubble
An opened passageway in the debris, North on 19th Street, Galveston, Texas
Galveston disaster – Lucas Terrace where fifty lives were lost, looking west
Floating wreckage near Texas City – typical scene for miles along the water front – Galveston disaster
Tex. – Galveston – Sacred Heart Church, Broadway & 13th St. – full view after hurricane and flood damage, Sept. 1900
Looking toward the gulf, showing space swept clean by the tornado’s might, Galveston, Texas
Galveston, Texas, after the hurricane and flood of Sept. 8-9, 1900: Burning dead bodies.
Galveston Disaster, Texas: body in the ruins on wharf – storms are no respecter of persons or of age, of sex or of race.
The Galveston Catastrophe – removing a body from land under 20 feet of debris – Men using pitch forks to remove body.
Looking North from Ursuline Academy, showing wrecked Negro High School Building, Galveston, Texas
Galveston Disaster, Texas: beginning life anew after the storm – : 2 men and a woman in front of a partially constructed shack.
Galveston Disaster, Texas: house on Ave. N slightly moved with flood
Galveston Disaster, Texas: a slightly twisted house
The Waves’ Caprice – the only remaining house near the beach for miles – Galveston disaster, Texas
Dredge boat, driven eleven miles, and stranded three miles from the sea, one of John Young’s fleet for deepening the channel while gathering mud shell for the paving business. Young & Company would be devastated by the storm and the Young family would lose their new home. The firm was operating again by the 1st of November and their new home would be built on the foundations of their old one by the following September. Local banks made $10,000,000 available in grants and Galveston rebuilt – not for the first time and certainly not for the last time!