CONTACTS: Ron Trumbla                        NOAA 00-R258   
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          Curtis Carey                       September 7, 2000
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Nation's Worst Weather Disaster

Galveston, Texas -- One hundred years ago tomorrow, the great Galveston hurricane roared through the prosperous island city with winds in excess of 130 miles per hour and a 15-foot storm surge. When it was finally over, at least 3,500 homes and buildings were destroyed and more than 8,000 people were killed.

"That hurricane left the city totally devastated with the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States," said Bill Proenza, director of the National Weather Service Southern Region. "The number of people who lost their lives on that single day represents more than the combined fatalities resulting from the 325 tropical storms and hurricanes that have struck the United States since then. In fact, that single event accounts for one third of all tropical storm or hurricane-related fatalities that have occurred in this nation since it was founded," he added.


Despite the horrendous loss of life, many people were saved by the actions of Galveston's Weather Bureau Manager, Dr. Isaac M. Cline. Cline and the Weather Bureau were aware of the hurricane as it passed over Cuba on a northern track. Consequently, warnings were issued for the eastern Gulf states, Florida and the southern Atlantic coast.

Since wireless ship-to-shore communication was not yet available in 1900, information was extremely sketchy and there was little if any knowledge that the hurricane was strengthening and heading toward Texas.

As the storm neared the Texas coast, Cline became increasingly suspicious of the weather. Convinced that a major storm was pending, he decided to raise the hurricane warning flags atop the Weather Bureau building on September 7th, the day before the hurricane struck. Throughout the 7th and the morning of September 8th, Cline continued to patrol the beach warning people to move to higher ground. With a population of more than 35,000 people, it is likely many more Galveston residents would have died without the warnings. In what would be the last message to reach the outside world, Cline said, "Gulf rising rapidly; half the city now under water."


In 1900, the highest point in Galveston was only 8.7 feet above sea level and the hurricane easily inundated the city with a storm surge of 15 feet.

With the terrible memories of the 1900 hurricane in mind, the people of Galveston began an unprecedented effort to protect their city from the next "big one." In 1902, they began constructing a 16-foot thick, 17-foot high sea wall covering three miles of oceanfront. They also began the monumental task of raising the entire island by as much as eight feet with sand dredged from Galveston Bay.

Today's sea wall has been extended to a length of 10 miles of oceanfront to protect the heart of the city.


The National Weather Service's ability to detect and warn of dangerous storms and hurricanes has improved dramatically over the years. Today, geostationary satellites provide continuous surveillance that helps determine the location, size and intensity of developing storms. Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Air Force use specially equipped aircraft to fly into hurricanes to measure wind, pressure, temperature and humidity and to pinpoint the exact location of the storm's core. These flights enhance scientists' understanding of hurricanes and improve forecast capabilities.

As hurricanes approach, the National Weather Service's land-based Doppler weather radar network is used by forecasters all along the U.S. coasts to monitor storm movement. The National Weather Service has its National Hurricane Center in Miami, Fla., forecasting and warning for all tropical storms and developing predictive computer models of hurricane movement and storm surges. Recently, the Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) has been implemented to integrate all of the incoming data and distribute it to the NWS regional operations and forecast offices across the nation.


Despite technological advances, improved communication, strong partnerships with emergency management agencies and updated preparedness and evacuation plans -- millions of Americans remain in harm's way as the nation's coastal populations grow. The NWS warning system provides adequate time for people on barrier islands and the immediate coastline to move inland when hurricanes threaten. But it is often difficult to evacuate people from these coastal areas because roads have not always kept pace with population growth.

This problem is compounded by the fact that 80 to 90 percent of the population living in hurricane-prone areas has not experienced a "major" hurricane. Many have experienced weaker storm conditions and are left with a false impression of a hurricane's potential for damage.

"A significant hurricane still poses a tremendous potential for loss of life, particularly in heavily populated residential areas that are near sea level," said Proenza. "Only through continued public preparedness and education, can we assure the proper response that will avoid such disasters."


Additional background information on the Galveston Hurricane of September 8-9, 1900, is available through NOAA's National Climatic Data Center.