The Galveston Storm
On September 8, 1900, hurricane winds of at least 120 miles per hour ripped across the Texas coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, killing over 5000 people and decimating the city of Galveston. During the eighteen hour storm, tidal waves swept through sea-level streets, destroying homes and buildings and wiping out electricity, roads, and communication systems. As news of the disaster spread, supplies, including tents for the nearly 8000 homeless, poured into Galveston from across the nation.
Rebuilding Galveston involved construction of a reinforced concrete seawall and raising the city above sea level. Eight miles long and seventeen feet high, the massive seawall repells Gulf winds and water. Equally impressive, sand from the Gulf of Mexico was used to lift the city far above its previous grade. Ultimately, portions of Galveston lay fifteen feet above former levels. These fortifications continue to help protect the city from hurricane damage.
Galvestonians also transformed the structure of their city government. During reconstruction, a five-man commission replaced the mayor and board of aldermen. Initially viewed as an emergency measure, the commission form of government was so efficient that Galveston permanently adopted the scheme. The "Galveston Plan" was widely imitated by other cities and became a benchmark of early twentieth-century municipal reform.
The powerful hurricane's devastating impact on the people of Galveston captured the nation's imagination long after the water subsided and the town was rebuilt. By 1904, the "Galveston Flood" amusement park attraction at New York's Coney Island promised patrons a first-hand glimpse of the "scene of horror." On a stage two-hundred-feet-square, the audience watched a simulation of Galveston's destruction. A 1904 guidebook describes the show:
Thunder, lightning, the fury of the wind until the maddened waters leap from the depths, rush wildly over the city, carrying death before it, leaving a scene of despair after it—all of which forms an exhibition entirely new in the annals of the European or American stage.
History of Coney Island (New York: Burroughs & Co., 1904.)