A Meteorologist’s Mistake Cost Thousands of Lives During the Deadliest Hurricane in U.S. History


Hurricane season: from June to November, that dreaded part of the year that Gulf Coast residents know so well. We stock our supplies, we track the storms on the closest device at hand, and we pray that it turns at the last minute and misses us, and praying for the people it will hit, silently hating ourselves in our own self-preservation. Modern-day technology has made as prepared as we can be: storm trackers, GPS, 24-hour weather coverage. At the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, storm tracking and meteorology were more of an art than a science, the early days of what we recognize today.

In 1900, the deadliest hurricane in the history of the United States hit Galveston, Texas, with a brutal force that left a path of death and destruction in its wake. In the aftermath of the storm, the people of Galveston banded together to remove the debris, rebuild what they had lost, and protect their home from a disaster like this ever happening again.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, Galveston grew into one of the largest cities in Texas. Entrepreneurs recognized the importance of creating a flourishing port in this location. They cleared out the port, creating a vital deep-water harbor between New Orleans and Mexico, becoming the starting point of a vibrant export trade that would stimulate the growth of the United States. Investing their money into Galveston’s industry and businesses, the city developed quickly. It became a major grain and cotton exporter by the end of the nineteenth century. The city was also technologically advanced, boasting Texas’s first streetlights, telephones, and electric-powered homes.

Beach Hotel, Galveston, 1890. Pinterest

As commerce and business grew, and the town flourished, Galveston became a mecca for the wealthy. With a population reaching almost 40,000, the “New York of the Gulf” was home to millionaires who enjoyed living the good life: they built beautiful homes, imported the best products, and frequented in the best hotels and restaurants. Galveston soon became known for recreational entertainment, such as carnivals, golf clubs, and rowing clubs. By the late 1800s, it had grown into a luxurious coastal resort with no signs of slowing down.

At this time, the tools used to track and measure weather conditions were primitive compared to how they are today. Storm tracking, especially over water, was impossible until ships could communicate with the shore, which wasn’t possible until after the Great Galveston Hurricane. In 1886, about one hundred miles away, the town of Indianola was destroyed by a Category 4 hurricane, so the people of Galveston knew the risks of intense tropical storms. So far, they had been lucky and had not suffered much damage. Still, the potential of what could happen still weighed on the community, and many residents were vocal about protecting the city with a seawall. The same year that Indianola was wiped out, the city rejected a plan to build a seawall, claiming it was pointless and expensive.