The weather is on all our minds right now, given the disaster unfolding down in Texas with the storm called Harvey that is dumping feet of rain on major cities down there. This isn’t the first time that Texas has faced a weather disaster. One of the country’s most devastating hurricanes occurred on September 8th, 1900 in Galveston, Texas.
Galveston is an island off the coast of Texas. It was joined at that time in a fragile way by three railroad trestles and a wagon road that crossed the salt marshes. Galveston’s elevation was just 8.7 feet above the tide line. It was an affluent community dubbed “The New York of the Gulf” by the New York Herald, boasting more millionaires per square mile than Newport, Rhode Island. President William McKinley had directed the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) to establish a hurricane warning system in the West Indies but had none of the high tech ways of seeing what was coming. No radar, no planes–they had to rely on the reports of ships off of the coast for news of anything that might be unusual.
There was little warning about the storm that boiled up out of the Gulf on September 8th. Warm water and hot weather set the stage for the storm to intensify as it approached the coast. A reticence about using terms like tornado and hurricane was the policy of the Weather Bureau at the time.
People went to bed with little worry, expectations of rain the next day, perhaps. When the hurricane warning was issued it was too late. The storm that hit was a surprise. A monster storm, driving flood waters up and over the island which didn’t stand very high above the tide line–virtually unprotected from the 15 foot storm surge. Immense winds of 130-140 mph toppled buildings and created a wall of wood (many houses and buildings were wood framed at that time) that scraped down the island like a giant plow– knocking houses off their foundations and becoming a massive juggernaut of wood and debris that scraped the land clear. Into this maelstrom of wind and water people were dumped, jumped and crushed. Over 8000 people died.
The Texas coast had more warning about Hurricane Harvey than Galveston got about the unnamed hurricane in 1900, but even with that, the planning and logistics of moving a million people in a very short time is daunting or impossible. The “500 and 1000 year storm” is happening with greater frequency. The criteria may need revising. What has been anomalous weather that happens rarely may eventually become the norm. We have better warning systems but the sheer volume of wind and water and huge populations building in flood plains will continue provide challenges in the future and accelerate the need for zoning and planning changes.
The Earl Center is a member of NOAA’s Weather Ready Nation Program. We will be sharing information and advice about weather that NOAA provides to us. Hurricane season runs from July to November–so we are in the middle of it. NOAA provides guidelines and tips on hurricane safety. Stay tuned–and keep the people in Texas in your thoughts and hearts. They are inadvertent pioneers of our new climate.