On this day in 1900, a Category 4 hurricane rips through Galveston, Texas, killing an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 people. A 15-foot storm surge flooded the city, then situated at less than nine feet above sea level, and numerous homes and buildings were destroyed. The hurricane remains the worst weather-related disaster in U.S. history in terms of loss of life.
Galveston, first visited by French and Spanish explorers in the 16th and 17th centuries, is located on Galveston Island, a 29-mile strip of land about two miles off the Texas coast and about 50 miles southeast of Houston. The city, which was named in the late 18th century for the Spanish governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Galvez, was incorporated in 1839 and is linked to the mainland by bridges and causeways. Galveston is a commercial shipping port and, with its warm weather and miles of beaches, has also long been a popular resort. At the time of the 1900 hurricane, Galveston, nicknamed the Oleander City, was filled with vacationers. Sophisticated weather forecasting technology didn’t exist in 1900, but the U.S. Weather Bureau issued warnings telling people to move to higher ground. However, these advisories were ignored by many vacationers and residents alike.
After the hurricane, a large seawall was eventually built to protect Galveston from flooding. The city was pummeled again by major hurricanes in 1961 and 1983, but they caused less damage than the one that struck in 1900.
The word “hurricane” comes from Hurican, the Carib god of evil. Hurricanes typically form in the tropical zones north and south of the equator. They can be hundreds of miles wide and last for several weeks as they move across the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean hurricane season runs from June through November.
In 1953, the U.S. National Weather Service, which tracks hurricanes and issues advisories, started giving storms female names in order to help scientists and the public follow them. Beginning in 1979, men’s names were also used. The World Meteorological Organization assigns one name for each letter of the alphabet, with the exception of Q, U and Z. The lists of names are reused every six years; however, when a hurricane is especially deadly or costly its name is retired and a new name is added to the list. In 2006, “Katrina,” along with four other names from the 2005 hurricane season, was taken out of service. Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast states in August 2005, was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.