Three Lessons Learned from the 1900 Storm
September 8, 2020
On September 8, 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history struck my neighborhood. The 1900 Storm was a category-4 hurricane that stuck Galveston, Texas, with 120 mph (category 3) winds and a 15.7-foot storm surge that drowned thousands of people. In the weeks following the storm, recovery efforts revealed 6,000-8,000 people perished in Galveston and 8,000-12,000 people when including the surrounding area. Today is the 120th anniversary of this catastrophic event.
While the impacts of this storm were catastrophic, the story does not end there. Galveston found the creativity, grit and determination to literally raise itself up, building a 17-foot high seawall along the coast and raising an inhabited city as high as 17 feet in a grade raising project unrivaled before or since by any city in the world. The seawall was completed by 1904 and the grade raising by early in 1911. This tremendous effort to save the city makes Galveston the world’s most resilient coastal city, in my opinion.
Over the past several weeks, I have had many conversations with family, friends and colleagues about this disaster and the tremendous effort to make Galveston more resilient. I felt compelled to reflect on three major lessons I learned from this event and write a blog post about it.
It CAN Happen Here
Throughout the 19th Century, Galveston grew into a wealthy port that exported cotton and imported goods to settle the Plains, as well as the immigrants who would live there. Galveston exploded into the second wealthiest city per capita in the country. Many of its residents and prominent businessmen downplayed the risk of hurricane strikes, and even Isaac Cline, Galveston’s Chief Meteorologist, held the opinion that a disastrous saltwater flood, called a storm surge, could not strike Galveston because surrounding wetlands and open space would absorb the water.
Yet if one looked closer, the signs of potential disaster were evident. Hurricanes in 1875 and 1886 wiped out the competing port of Indianola, Texas, located just 115 miles southwest of Galveston. The 1886 hurricane struck Indianola with 150 mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge that annihilated a city in a similar setting as Galveston, not far down the coast.
The 1886 hurricane was large enough to push saltwater to 9 feet above Mean Low Tide in Galveston, covering most of the island. This storm did scare some Galveston residents, and a committee formed to discuss the need for a seawall. But somewhere along the way in the glorious Texas weather, the idea of the seawall was forgotten until the 1900 Storm struck.
Essentially, most residents of Galveston held the perspective that a catastrophic hurricane strike could NOT happen here. In time, they learned that their perspective and reality did not match up.
As I travel along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, I encounter many people with this same unrealistic mindset, who sincerely believe that a major disaster could not hit their city. In the context of hurricane risk, these cities fall into three categories, lucky cities, lower risk cities and improved cities.
IT CANNOT HAPPEN HERE – CATEGORY 1 – LUCKY CITIES
Lucky cities have experienced a long streak of “good luck” and near misses. Hurricanes always seem to miss these areas…at least over the past several decades.
Consider Destin, Florida. Hurricane Ivan struck Alabama and the western Florida Panhandle, near Pensacola, in September 2004, with category 3 winds and a 15-foot storm surge. Ivan’s core impacts struck 50 miles west of Destin. Hurricane Michael struck Panama City and nearby communities in 2018, generating category 5 winds and a 16-foot storm surge at Mexico Beach, Florida, with core impacts 55 of miles east of Destin. Somehow, Destin has managed to avoid direct hurricane strikes this century, and this can lead people to assume they are protected from hurricanes. They have really just been lucky.
Some “lucky” locations in recent decades:
Florida Atlantic Coast- Miami through Cocoa Beach
Matthew (2016) near miss to east, Irma (2017) fringe effects in Miami…some storm surge, Dorian (2018) parked in Bahamas as a cat-5 hurricane, Isaias (2020), brushed area but missed to east.
Corpus Christi, Texas
Somehow, this area has avoided direct hurricane impacts since Hurricane Allen (1980). Hurricane Harvey made landfall just north of the city, near Rockport, with cat-4 winds in 2017, and Hurricane Hanna rapidly intensified before making landfall about 60 miles south of the city in 2020. Corpus has been very lucky.
And, of course, Galveston (1900)
Until 1900, the city was riding a long lucky streak, while cities up and down the coast were impacted by severe hurricanes.
IT CANNOT HAPPEN HERE – CATEGORY 2 – LOWER RISK CITIES
Low risk is not the same as no risk. Some areas have favorable characteristics that reduces their hurricane strike risk, but when all the factors line up, they could face a catastrophic event.
Northeast Florida, coastal Georgia and southern South Carolina sit along a concave-shaped coastline that generally observes less hurricane strikes because the land does not protrude into the water like the Outer Banks of North Carolina or Florida Peninsula.
Yet, the shallow water depth and coastline shape creates an ideal setting for storm surge generation if a powerful hurricane takes a very specific, but unlikely, track. In 1898, a category-4 hurricane generated a 16-foot storm surge at Brunswick, Georgia, in a storm that would shock most locals if it repeated itself again today.
While this area has seen some impacts from storm surge (Matthew 2016) and compound flooding from surge and heavy rain near Jacksonville (Irma 2018), they have avoided a direct hurricane strike.
Some “Lower Risk” Locations:
Northeast Florida, Georgia, Southern South Carolina
Florida Gulf Coast – Naples through Clearwater Beach
Irma (2017) tracked just inland, barely missing major impacts from Naples to Clearwater…Michael (2018) impacted Panhandle and Big Bend but missed center and southwest Florida. This area does not see as many direct hurricane strikes as southeast Florida, the Florida Keys or the Florida Panhandle, but if a powerful hurricane did approach from the southwest, it could generate a storm surge exceeding 15 feet in this region. The military fort near Tampa observed 10-foot and 14-foot storm surges just one month apart from each other in 1848.
Eastern Long Island, Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts
The large wind field from Superstorm Sandy (2012) pushed a big surge down Long Island Sound and impacted many communities in southwest Long Island, New York City and much of New Jersey. But Eastern Long Island, Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts did not observe water levels nearly as high as in 1938, 1944 and 1954.
IT CANNOT HAPPEN HERE – CATEGORY 3 – IMPROVED CITIES
Improved cities have experienced extensive resiliency projects to make them less subject to wind and/ or flood impacts. Behind higher flood walls or hardened levees, these communities may feel a sense of safety from projects designed to protect them. But does this spawn over-confidence?
New Orleans comes to mind in this category. After Hurricane Katrina, levees were improved. But have these improvements created a false sense of security in areas that are still high risk for severe storm surge impacts?
I wonder the same thing about Galveston today. Some locals may think that the city has seen the worst thing that Mother Nature can throw at it, because the seawall protects it from future storms. But does this perspective create a false sense of security and keep us from assessing the actual wind and flood risk?
The powerful winds from the 1900 storm caused massive structural failures in Galveston, as seen in the photo below that shows damage to Sacred Heart Church. But were these 120 mph winds a worst-case scenario? The Euro weather model, considered by many to be the world’s most reliable model, projected a category-4 landfall near Galveston from Hurricane Laura two weeks ago. The storm tracked east, making landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, with 150 mph winds. Had it made landfall in Galveston, the winds would have been 30 mph greater than the 1900 Storm.
While Galveston’s seawall provides storm surge protection, sea levels have risen around 2.5 feet relative to land since the seawall was built. The seawall today rises around 13 feet above Mean Sea Level. Laura’s peak storm surge likely would have topped the seawall, and this does not include the tremendous waves that are pushed on top of the surge. Had Laura struck Galveston with the strength that she struck Cameron, Galveston would be looking at a long-term recovery effort that could take years. The storm would have defied the expectations in the minds of many people who may minimize risk because of the seawall and grade raising projects after the 1900 Storm.
Consider the picture below, which shows devastation from wind and water in the 1915 Galveston Hurricane, that struck AFTER the Seawall was built. Maximum sustained winds in Galveston were 93 mph in this storm and storm surge reached approximately 13-14 feet. Laura would likely have inflicted more severe damage than this if it hit Galveston directly.
Some “improved cities” that may have more risk than residents realize:
Galveston (2020) – mentioned above
New Orleans – levees improved after Katrina but could they fail again?
New York City- hardened infrastructure in Manhattan, but how would they do from a direct strike of a cat-2 hurricane?
Providence, Rhode Island- Increased protection from the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier built from 1960 to 1966, but after 60 years sea level rise, how would the barrier perform from a direct hurricane strike?
Resiliency Takes Creativity, Effort, Sacrifice and Intentional Choices
Galveston’s effort to protect itself with the seawall and grade raising projects required creativity, effort, sacrifice and intentional choices. The grade raising project required a 200-foot wide, 20-foot deep canal to be dug through the city, where four dredge hoppers, small boats that were built in Europe to scoop up sediment in Galveston Bay and discharge a mix of sediment and water, called slurry, would operate for a 6-year period.
Residents were required to raise their own homes. As the city was raised in sections, muddy water would run through a given neighborhood for weeks or months until the grade was raised.
This effort took precise planning and cooperation from everyone. Lines drawn on utility poles displayed the level to which the grade would be raised in each section, so people could determine how high to raise their homes.
In some areas of the city, hundreds of men crawled under massive church buildings, raising them by turning jack screws on the beat of a drum.
Galvestonians had plenty of excuses to not raise their city. They could have found the prospect of running a canal through their city, building ships in Europe to move sediment and finding hundreds of men to raise churches too cumbersome of a task. But they embraced the creativity, effort, sacrifice and intentional choices needed to save their city.
Invest In Places Worth Saving
Following the 1900 Storm, why did Galveston make the choice to save itself and rebuild a stronger and higher city, while other cities struck by disasters in that era simply abandoned the site and moved on? This question came up in the Living on the Edge resiliency conferences in which I participated from 2014-2016 in Galveston.
A conclusion that came out of our discussions was that Galveston was a place worth saving. Even after the 1900 Storm, Galveston still had hundreds of Victorian-era houses, large, ornate buildings, like churches, and a bustling seaport. It was a unique place that could not be duplicated.
This concept makes us think about the value of preserving and saving historic places that cannot be replaced. Coastal cities like Boston, Annapolis, Charleston and New Orleans, have irreplaceable history that is worth protecting because it ties us to our past and brings history to life.
New development can also emerge as a space that is worth saving, if it creates value for a community by connecting residential areas with parks, schools, businesses and cultural attractions, like museums and art galleries. Following the theme of our resiliency conferences, though, such places connect deeper with people if they create unique and memorable experiences. Consider, for example, the atmosphere around college towns that have emerged over the past decades. There is only one Florida Gator or Penn State Nittany Lion, and the deep experience people feel with college and university life bonds them to the place and motivates them to save it in a time of crisis.
This is what happened in Galveston. The residents had such a deep connection and pride in their city that that would do anything to save it. We may contrast that with vast areas of suburban sprawl and big box stores that look the same in Columbus, Ohio, as in Salt Lake City, Utah. The emotional impact of losing a Home Depot or McDonald’s may be less than a family-owned hardware store on Main Street that has been there for 80 years.