Friday, September 8, 2017

The Worst Natural Disaster in U.S. History: It wasn't last week, and it won't be this week either

Source: National Weather Service

I was doing a quick search for information on the United State's worst ever natural disaster, and found almost immediately that today is the anniversary of that event. That might sound a bit strange, since the media is describing the devastation of Hurricane Harvey as the worst U.S. disaster ever, and the possibility that Hurricane Irma could surpass it in a few days. And to be sure, these are horrible events, and before I started writing this post I made a number of donations to relief organizations in the south Texas region (I recommend to guide your choices). But we can have a strange measure of "worst": we tend to think of monetary damages. And by that measure, the 2017 hurricane season is practically apocalyptic, and one of the hurricanes hasn't even hit U.S. soil yet (islands in the Caribbean have been devastated). But there is of course the other measure of disaster: lives lost. Lives have been lost, and every life lost is a tragedy, but these hurricanes are far from the worst in American history.
Galveston, 1900. Source:
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is high on the list, despite having taken place in the modern era with a population given advance warning (botched evacuation efforts and the unexpected failure of poorly reinforced levees led to the increased flooding that killed 1,836 people). But wasn't the worst. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is an obvious candidate, and indeed more than 3,000 people were killed in that tragedy. But was number two. What event was the worst?

You know, the year of 1900, children,
Many years ago
Death came howling on the ocean
Death calls, you got to go
Now Galveston had a seawall
To keep the water down,
And a high tide from the ocean
Spread the water all over the town.

In 1900, weather forecasting was a science hampered by a lack of data. Entire hurricanes could remain undetected in the Atlantic, and limited telegraph networks meant that storms that made landfall might still not be publicized. That was the situation in the days leading up to Sept. 8 of that year. The storm had been reported by weather watchers in Cuba, and the Weather Bureau office in Washington sent storm warnings to coastal areas in Louisiana and Texas. Few heeded the warnings. Storms had come and gone in Galveston over the years without serious damage, so why would this one be any different?
Galveston was a town of 36,000 people. It was an economic powerhouse, situated on an excellent natural harbor. But geologically, it was a disaster waiting to happen. The town was built on a barrier island, a long sand island that paralleled the Texas coastline. Such islands are unstable locations for human development due to the lack of solid foundations for buildings, and the low elevation. The island sat no more than 8 feet above sea level, and despite the song lyrics above, there was no seawall.

You know the trumpets give them warning
You'd better leave this place
Now, no one thought of leaving
'til death stared them in the face
And the trains they all were loaded
The people were all leaving town
The trestle gave way to the water
And the trains they went on down.

Winds, as we have been learning these last few weeks, are not the worst aspect of hurricanes. The winds can certainly produce extensive damage, but nothing quite compares to the storm surge of a major hurricane. The extreme low pressure at the eye of the hurricane acts to raise sea level, and as the storm makes landfall, the seawater surges inland. The storm surge of the Galveston hurricane was 15 feet, more than enough to sweep over the entire island, and too deep to stand in. Many people trying to swim were crushed by debris from the 3,600 buildings that had been demolished. Bridges and trestles that would have allowed people to escape the island were washed away. They were trapped.

Rain it was a-falling
thunder began to roll
Lightning flashed like hellfire
The wind began to blow
Death, the cruel master
When the wind began to blow
Rode in on a team of horses
I cried, "Death, won't you let me go"

We can never know just how many people died that night. 6,000 is the low estimate. 12,000 is the high-end guess. There were too many corpses for burial, so an attempt was made to dispose of them at sea. Many floated back and accumulated on the beaches. Eventually funeral pyres were constructed, and the bodies were burned. I can hardly comprehend the horror, although ghastly pictures from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia provided a stark example. And as we all know, pictures cannot convey the sound and odor of death.

Hey, now trees fell on the island
And the houses give away
Some they strained and drowned
Some died in most every way
And the sea began to rolling
And the ships they could not stand
And I heard a captain crying
"God save a drowning man."
This photo was labeled "Seeking valuables in the wreckage". What would they call it in the present day? Source:
This weekend our country faces what might be the most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. Many people will die (indeed several dozen already have in the Caribbean), and the property damage will be devastating. It will be a tragedy for all in the path. But imagine how different it would be were it not for the climate scientists who labor to understand the formation and pathways of hurricanes and other violent storms. Imagine not knowing the end of your world is just over the horizon, only hours away, coming with no warning. Tens of thousands of people will owe their lives to the work done by these scientists.

Politicians and pundits on one side of the aisle in Washington have a shocking lack of respect for climate scientists, and have denigrated their efforts to understand and analyze the changes taking place in our atmosphere due to warming caused by greenhouse gases. With their college degrees in political science or business administration, or in the case of some media personalities, their high school diplomas, a number of people have declared themselves to be experts in climate science, and deny the effects of climate change that are happening around them. Some accuse scientists of being hoaxers. It's ironic that they evacuate when the scientists give a warning about an imminent threat, but ignore the mountain of evidence for long-term changes in the environment that sustains us.

Climate scientists are heroes and they deserve both respect and support. This is not the time that our government should be cutting funding for climate research, but that is what is happening. This must be stopped. Our very lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

The ghosts of Galveston are watching...

Death, your hands are clammy
You got them on my knee
You come and took my mother
Won't you come back after me
And the flood it took my neighbor
Took my brother, too
I thought I heard my father calling
And I watched my mother go.

You know, the year of 1900, children,
Many years ago
Death came howling on the ocean
Death calls, you got to go

The song is a folk anthem called Wasn't That a Mighty Storm. Learn more about it here.


Ruth W. said...

What's amazing is that 2/3 of the people survived!

Blake H. Lindsey said...

My wife gave me a book about the Galveston storm for Christmas a few years back, "Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson. It's a very vivid---yet well-researched---work. I grew up in Pennsylvania, so the Johnstown Flood was part of our cultural history. My parents were both from southeastern Missouri and my mother is someone with a deep interest in history, so I grew up learning about the New Madrid earthquake, and I now reside in California and was here for the centennial of the SF 1906 quake, so disaster narratives seem to be interwoven into my personal history. :) None of those, however, compare with Galveston.

Gail Holmes said...

Thank you for your informed insight. As a geologist, I, too, have read the book about the 1900 event. It was eye-opening and gave me greater respect for how important climatology is to life on this planet.