Galveston Storm Was Deadliest in U.S. History

Sept. 22, 2005 — -- One day in the year 1900, the port city of Galveston, Texas, was one of the wealthiest and most important in the country, and a regional rival to Houston. Almost overnight, it wasn't and never would be again.

"Our main commercial street, the Strand, was called the Wall Street of the Southwest," said Linda MacDonald, a Galveston resident.

"It is thought that Galveston was second only to Newport, R.I., in per capita wealth," said Leslie Sommer, the city's historian.

But now, as Galveston empties out and Rita roars toward it from Gulf, the only thing left to protect this city -- a relatively minor one, but still a city with 32 miles of beachfront -- is God's will and a wall.

The sea wall was built because 105 years ago, a hurricane did to Galveston what Katrina just did to New Orleans, or worse. It was built, and the city was raised several feet from its former level, to make sure that such destruction would never be repeated.

'Arrogance'

The residents of that summer of 1900 thought they knew about hurricanes because they had endured a mighty one in 1875.

"That had been the worst hurricane to that point in time," MacDonald said. "And so, because it had survived, there was also this feeling: 'Well, we went through the one of 1875, you know, we don't need a sea wall.' "

Sommer called it "a bit of arrogance."

"Here these people had built these grand buildings, buildings that were unlike anything else in the state of Texas," Sommer said. "Who would think that these massive masonry houses and commercial buildings and storefronts could ever be affected by something from the sea?"

Then came the hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900, and the people of Galveston, arrogant or not, learned what a big storm really looked like. Historians think it was a Category 4.

"My grandfather was 6 years old during the 1900 storm," MacDonald said. "He used to tell me that it sounded like 1,000 demons screaming in the night. And he said he would hear children calling for help, women screaming for help and men begging for mercy from God."

Like in New Orleans, the water came so deep and so fast.

"Here in Galveston, it rose four feet in four seconds," MacDonald said. "That was quite an increase. And we had the main tidal surge that came in, flooding the city."

People were trapped the same way as they were in the Big Easy. Only, 105 years ago, there were no helicopters.

"The 1900 storm wiped out all of our communication, wiped out the bridges that connected the island to the mainland," Sommer said. "And so, certainly there were delays."

Bodies

Then, the water receded and it was a matter of rounding up the bodies. Between 6,000 and 12,000 people died -- 15 to 25 percent of the population.

It was a death toll so large that many bodies were loaded onto barges for burial at sea. But the sea refused to keep them.

"There was a man who put his mother-in-law on one of the barges and two days later, the man ran up to Father Kirwin, and he said, 'Father Kirwin, my mother-in-law is back,' " MacDonald said. "And Father Kirwin thought it was just the stress of the situation. But then the man said, 'They're all back.' And they were, because all of these bodies were washing ashore."

The deaths and debris were enough to convince the survivors of Galveston that they needed to build the sea wall.

But Galveston, after that, more or less stopped growing. Houston, an hour's drive inland, is now 30 times larger.

There have been fierce winds in Galveston since then, and other storms, though none as large as the looming Rita.

As she approaches, the evacuees on the roads out of town have decided that even their great wall should not be trusted to protect them twice. They are reminded -- once by Katrina, once by recent history -- that it can happen again.

ABC News' John Donvan originally reported this story Sept. 21, 2005, for "Nightline."

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