The Tempest At Galveston: 'We Knew There Was A Storm Coming, But We Had No Idea'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today is the last day of the official 2017 hurricane season. It's been the most destructive in history - an estimated $200 billion in damages - and the only time that three Category 4 hurricanes have hit the United States in the same year. For all of the destruction, Americans, at least, could see the hurricanes coming. All you had to do was watch TV. This next story is about a time when hurricanes struck without warning. NPR's John Burnett has covered many hurricanes for NPR News. He's now on the Texas coast on the beach on Galveston Island.

Why there, John?

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve. Well, the reason I'm here in Galveston is because this was the site of the worst natural disaster and the worst hurricane in U.S. history. It came ashore September 8 of 1900. They call it the Great Galveston Storm. They estimate it was a Category 4 with a 15-foot storm surge. It killed 6,000 to 12,000 people and virtually destroyed the city. Forecasting was so primitive in those days, all they had was spotty reports from ships that were out on the Gulf. The citizens of Galveston had no idea that a killer storm was bearing down on them.

INSKEEP: Well, how did you go about trying to reconstruct what that experience was like?

BURNETT: Well, back in 2000, I did a documentary on the centennial of the hurricane that NPR aired. It was really a labor of love. The project originally was produced with The Kitchen Sisters and their Lost & Found Sound project. So we're going to play an abbreviated version of that. And I do want to say, some of what you're going to hear is very raw and might not be appropriate for young ears. These are oral histories from survivors of the great storm who lived to tell the tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHERINE VEDDER PAULS: Everyone went about their usual tasks until about 11 a.m., when my brother Jacob and our cousin Allen Brooks came from the beach with a report that Gulf was very rough and the tide very high.

BURNETT: Katherine Vedder Pauls was not quite 6 years old at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULS: About half past 3, Jacob and Allen came running, shouting excitedly that the Gulf looked like a great gray wall about 50 feet high and moving slowly toward the island.

BURNETT: At the dawn of the 20th century, Galveston was the grandest city in Texas. After the 1900 storm, she would never regain her status. What became of the people of Galveston is what happened before accurate forecasting, mandatory evacuations and storm building codes. This year, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were destructive in terms of dollars, but the official death toll remains under 300. In 1900, thousands died. The unnamed hurricane swept in from the Gulf with a tidal surge so high it swallowed the skinny barrier island that was only 5 feet above sea level.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNIE MCCULLOUGH: Oh, it was a awful thing. You want me to tell you, but it's - no tongue can tell it.

BURNETT: Annie McCullough was about 22 years old in 1900. Her family was on a mule-drawn wagon, trying to escape the rising tide.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCULLOUGH: The water was coming so fast. The wagon was getting so it was floating. And the poor mules swimming, they was pulling. And the men laid flat on their stomach, holding the little children.

BURNETT: These recordings are archived at Galveston's Rosenberg Library, along with letters and memoirs. Survivors wrote of wind that sounded like a thousand little devils shrieking and whistling, of 6-foot waves coming down Broadway Avenue, of a grand piano riding the crest of one, of slate shingles turning into whirling saw blades and of streetcar tracks becoming waterborne battering rams that tore apart houses. Katherine Vedder Pauls, reading from her memoir, describes how any sturdy building became a shelter.

PAULS: (Reading) The animals tried to swim to safety, and the frightened, squawking chickens were roosting everywhere they could get above the water. People from homes already demolished were beginning to drift into our house, which still stood starkly against the increasing fury of the wind and water.

BURNETT: At the height of the storm, John W. Harris remembered two dozen terrified people climbing in through the windows of their home on Tremont Street. His mother prepared for rising floodwaters by lashing her children together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN W. HARRIS: Mother had a trunk strap around each one of us to hold on to us as long as she could.

BURNETT: Rosenberg School, built of brick, became a refuge for Annie McCullough's family and many others.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MCCULLOUGH: And the people were screaming and hollering and so - hunting their folks. The wind - those men that was in the school - all they could do was stand against those doors and hold them.

BURNETT: The sun rose on September 9 on a coastal city obliterated. One survivor described knots of people frightened out of their wits, crazy men and women crying and weeping at the tops of their voices. Corpses were everywhere. There was never an official death toll, only estimates. Authorities forced men, most of whom were black, at bayonet point to collect the dead, pile them on barges and dump them in the Gulf for burial, but the cadavers washed back onshore. Finally, they had to be burned in funeral pyres. Thieves who stole jewelry from the bodies were shot on sight. Louise Bristol Hopkins was 7 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOUISE BRISTOL HOPKINS: It was a terrible time. It really was. I heard the stories of women with long hair who'd been caught in the trees with their hair and cut to pieces with slate that had been flying.

BURNETT: Katherine Vedder Pauls recollected a ghoulish incident that happened to her mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAULS: And once, she stepped on a barrel concealed by the water. It rolled, and she went under with it. She grabbed at something to pull herself up. It was the body of a small girl. Her self-control gave way, and she wept hysterically.

BURNETT: John W. Harris, who became a prominent banker and philanthropist on the island, lost 11 relatives in the 1900 storm. He remembered his family was having breakfast in their house - one of the few that stood against the waves - when the mayor came by.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: He said to father, John, your whole family are destroyed. And I remember it's first time that I ever saw father with tears in his eyes. He had no idea of the extent of the damage. We hadn't left the house yet.

BURNETT: As disturbing as those recollections are, today, there's very little in Galveston to remind people of the 1900 hurricane aside from the sea wall that I'm looking at now. It was one of the great engineering marvels of the day. They also raised the city, elevating more than 2,000 structures.

INSKEEP: So the city is higher, but did it really recover?

BURNETT: It did, but mainly as a tourist town. It was Houston, farther inland, that grew into the metropolis on the Gulf Coast. And now with Hurricane Harvey, Houston has just experienced the worst catastrophe in its history.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Burnett in Galveston, Texas. John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Steve.

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