“An Absurd Delusion”: Pride, Ignorance, and America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster

Damage in Galveston, Texas, from hurricane Ike, a storm of similar intensity to the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 | December 28, 2008 | Courtesy of Flickr

Winner of the Fall 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Article with the Best Introduction

“Do you hear anything about Galveston?”

“We have been absolutely unable to hear a word from Galveston since 4 p.m….” 1

It is September 8, 1900, and Galveston, Texas, is under assault. A storm of unprecedented destructive power is swirling over the city.2 Isaac Cline feels the waves and debris beat his home. Relentlessly the blows fall, hammering again and again. Each time, the timbers of his home scream in agony, slowly losing the battle against the storm.3 Several blocks away, August Rollfing is trapped inside the ground floor of a store. Warm water laps around his neck; he is standing on a countertop; he can get no higher. Eight more inches of water, and he will drown. Closer to the beach, Dr. Samuel Young is standing on the balcony of his home. The violent wind has pinned him to the side of his house. He looks around. With each lightning flash, fewer and fewer homes are left standing. Suddenly, he feels a shift, as if gravity has lost its power. His home tilts and begins to settle gracefully into the raging surf. The wind roars, thunder booms, waves pound, and homes fall. People die by the thousands. Bodies are floating though the city.4 Galveston, at the time one of America’s greatest cities, so proud in its prosperity, is poised on the brink of destruction. Tens of thousands of people are at the mercy of the storm.5 Their lives are hanging by a thread. Just yesterday, the suggestion that Galveston was to be destroyed would have been scoffed at. How was this catastrophe allowed to happen?

In the year 1900, Galveston, Texas, was incredibly prosperous. If things continued as they were, she would soon attain a similar status to New Orleans, Baltimore, and San Francisco. In 1899, Galveston became the largest cotton port in America, and the third-busiest port overall. Her economic prosperity was clearly reflected in the 1900 census, which showed Galveston’s growth of 30 percent over the previous ten years alone. In 1900, she was rumored to have more millionaires per square mile than Newport, Rhode Island, which further distinguished Galveston from other major American cities.6

The Bishop’s Palace in Galveston, Texas, as depicted on a postcard circa 1900 | Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

The period of history leading up to 1900 was a time of advancement and confidence. The West was still wild, American warships steamed to crush the Boxers in China, homes were lit with electricity, information could be sent through wires across the country in seconds, and people could talk to friends in Houston without leaving their living room in Galveston. Everyone knew that storms traversed the Gulf of Mexico, but experts said that Galveston had little to fear. Isaac Cline, the lead meteorologist for the Galveston office of the U.S. Weather Bureau, wrote that hurricane fears among the Galveston population were simply “an absurd delusion.”7 According to Cline, “it would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.”8 In the spirit of the age, Isaac thought he knew all there was to know about these uncontrollable monsters. He believed that man had conquered nature. He was a scientist who had studied the weather for years. But he was fatally mistaken.9

That summer, a disturbance moved off the coast of Africa. It tracked across the Atlantic and crossed over Cuba. It was a little wind and rain, nothing more. The Weather Bureau assured the people of the United States that they had nothing to fear. They predicted the disturbance would turn northward and pass over Florida. While something did pass over Florida, it was not this disturbance. Unknown to the Weather Bureau, what was to become the deadliest natural disaster in American history had tracked straight west, towards the coast of Texas, and then it disappeared. Somewhere out there, the disturbance found conditions very much to its liking. Warm water fueled it. Towering clouds blossomed, and the pressure at the center of the storm began to lower, enabling it to draw in even more warm air. By September 6, the disturbance had transformed into a monster. It had an intensity unlike anything anyone could have imagined. A beast was loose in the Gulf of Mexico, its sights trained on Galveston, and no one had any idea that it was coming.10

Isaac Cline as a young man | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In Galveston, Saturday, September 8, dawned with heavy clouds. A breeze was blowing from the north. Something was wrong, however. Very wrong. Even though the wind was from the north, massive, lumbering waves were breaking on the coast, coming from the southeast, and the tide was very high. If the wind had been from the southeast, that would have been normal, as the wind would have been pushing the water up the beach. But today, the wind was holding the water back, and yet it was still dangerously high.11 Isaac stood on the beach, holding his watch, timing the swells, and pondering the high water. Further down the beach, Samuel Young also watched the angry sea. They both went to their homes with heavy hearts, hearts weighted down by dread. However, Isaac remained unconvinced that a bad storm could impact Galveston, and did little to warn the people.12

By mid-morning, the clouds were black and low. The north breeze had freshened, bringing some relief from the stifling summer heat. Most people were delighted by the prospect of a little excitement. Many people went to the beach to see the violent ocean, splashing through puddles on the way. However, by eleven o’clock, rumors began to spread that the waves were beginning to demolish buildings along the ocean. Many people went to see it; by now, however, they had to wade through water up to their knees. No one was worried, though. Almost everyone remained delighted with the prospect of a storm, children especially. They played in the water that ran through the streets. Everyone felt that their city was invincible.13

Saturday was the end of a big week for August and Louisa Rollfing and their children. The previous Saturday, August, who had a reputation as somewhat of a deadbeat, had finally managed to make the last payment on the family’s beloved piano. It looked so big and strong sitting there in their home. On September 8, while Isaac Cline stood on the beach, the two oldest Rollfing children, Helen and August Jr., walked to the beach to investigate the rumors that were going around. They came back with tales of waves breaking buildings apart, of water rushing through the streets, and of wind throwing boards through the air. The storm had lost its charm; it was not fun anymore.14

Dr. Young was more excited about the storm than worried. He was one of those men who loves a cataclysm. To him, God created storms to entertain people. What he had seen at the beach convinced him that a hurricane was coming. At two o’clock, after composing a telegraph to his wife in San Antonio, he went home. He readied for the storm; that is, he got ready to enjoy it. He wanted to savor the terror. A hurricane was the 1900 equivalent of a modern horror film and roller coaster combined. About the time he got home, the wind began to shift. Up until then, it had been blowing out of the weaker part of the storm. But now it shifted to the northeast and began to roar. The water and wind had continued to rise. Young was still not concerned; adrenaline coursed through his veins.15

A couple of blocks away, however, Isaac Cline, the man of confidence, was worried. His wife, Cora, was pregnant with their fourth child. She was also ill and had become bedridden. Isaac wanted to move his family to a safer place, but the storm had grown too dangerous to take Cora outside. He decided that there was no alternative but to stay in their home. At about 6:30 that evening, Isaac went outside to observe what was happening. He was greeted by sheer spectacle. Where there had once been orderly rows of homes and shops, now there was only sea. Here and there a rooftop or a telephone pole protruded from water. Wind lashed violently. Boards, roofs, signs, all variety of debris filled the air. He went back inside.16

Seeking valuables in the wreckage of the Galveston hurricane | circa 1900 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

August Rollfing finally decided to go home to his wife. He waded through the flooded streets. Boards knocked against his legs. Occasionally, something soft brushed against him. He struggled against wind and water but was unable to make it very far. He entered the water works building, which already contained numerous people. Seeing that it would not be a safe place to take shelter, he reentered the storm, along with two others. They fought their way towards a store that looked safe. A piece of debris fell and struck one of the men dead. The two who remained joined about eighty men, women, and children who were already taking shelter in the store.17

All over Galveston, freakish things were happening. Shingles ripped from roofs became deadly, severing limbs and decapitating. Desperate to escape the rising water, people took refuge in trees where a new kind of cruel death awaited them: poisonous snakes also used the trees for refuge and did not appreciate company.18 Bodies floated through the streets. The wind blew homes apart as if they were made of toothpicks. The storm raged through each building; it seemed to be hunting down every fleeing man, woman, and child in the city.19

By now, a massive wall of debris had formed, piled up by wind and wave. It slowly moved through the city, scraping every structure in its path off the face of the earth. Isaac had one of the sturdiest homes in Galveston, and many neighbors came and took refuge in it. But the raging sea had set a monster on a course for the house. At the head of the mountain of debris was a massive piece of iron train track a quarter mile long. Unknown to Isaac, the titanic piece of wood and iron was only feet away from his house. Another wave, and the track gently touched it. The next swell was not so gentle. Like a great battering ram, the track hammered the house. Again and again it pounded, while the house timbers and beams splinter. Slowly, Isaac’s house was losing the battle. Everyone prepared to be cast into the sea. Suddenly, the house gave up the fight, tilted, and settled into the water.20

Seconds earlier, Isaac’s home was his only protection. Now, it has pinned him under fifteen feet of water. He thrashed about, desperately trying to free himself. His lungs burned for want of air. Weakening, he accepted his fate, stopped fighting, and lost consciousness. When he woke up, he found himself at the surface. He tread water and looked about for signs of life. A bolt of lightning revealed a small child, and Isaac swam over to it. It was his daughter, and she was alive. Shortly thereafter, he found his other two daughters and his brother, Joseph. They congregated on a floating piece of debris, thankful to be alive; as far as they knew, every other person in the house drowned. Lightning flickered across the sky, rain fell like a hail of bullets, the wind screamed deafeningly, debris flew, and titanic waves crashed all around.21

Not far away, Dr. Young was standing on his balcony, fascinated by the catastrophe. The wind was so intense that it had literally pinned him to the outside wall of his home. With each bolt of lightning, he scanned the city. At each flash, fewer and fewer homes were still standing. He felt a blow to his home and readied himself for the collapse. He tore off his door to use as a raft. His house leaned, he jumped free, and kicked away to put some distance between himself and his falling home. He rode the waves, blood streams from his wounds, and the rain stabbed his head like needles: he was completely at the mercy of the storm.22

Farther from the beach, August Rollfing was standing on a counter in the store in which he had taken refuge. The water rose, and quickly at that. He picked up a child and held it to keep its head above the water. The water reached his neck, and he prepared to live his last few moments. Eight more inches of water and he would drown, trapped. He stood there for hours this way, with death just around the corner. Suddenly, around eleven o’clock, someone shouted, “Look at the door!” The water level was dropping. The struggle for survival was finally ending.23

A photo of survivors clearing wreckage after the Galveston hurricane of 1900 | September 10, 1900 | Courtesy of DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University

The first light on Sunday morning revealed an incredible scene. Galveston, one of America’s great cities, had been reduced to rubble and death.24

Everyone’s first thought was to their loved ones. Isaac knew that Cora must be dead, but he would not give up searching until he finds her, dead or alive. Eventually, somehow, he found her lying under a mountain of debris, her corpse damaged nearly beyond recognition. August was more fortunate, as his family had been able to find a safe haven before the storm reached its ultimate fury. Dr. Young also survived, though his home was gone.25 Most, however, were not so lucky. Best estimates are that more than 8,000 people lost their lives in those unspeakably terrifying hours.26

The storm may be over, but for the survivors, a new torment was just beginning. All over the city there were bodies, far too many to bury. The leaders of the city who survived tried dumping them out into the ocean, attached to weights so they would sink. Hours later, however, the bodies came floating back. The sea was not going to give the survivors of the storm an easy way out of their living nightmare. Finally, a horrific decision was reached: the only way to dispose of the dead would be with fire. Around the city, large fires were kindled, and the bodies were burned. The whole city reeked of rotting and burning and decay.27

Preparing to put a dead body on one of the fires used after the storm | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Isaac never forgave himself for Cora’s death.28 He was responsible for warning the city when weather disasters were headed their way. Now, when a true catastrophe was about to happen, he had done almost nothing. Americans in 1900 thought they had conquered nature. They dared to defy it, and they were humbled. Now, as much as then, we need to respect and be aware of the forces we cannot control, lest we, too, come to disaster.

  1. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 1, 175.
  2. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 84.
  3. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 186.
  4. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 180, 200-201, 214.
  5. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019, s.v. “Galveston Hurricane,” Thomas Wikle.
  6. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 12-13.
  7. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 84.
  8. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 84.
  9. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 4-5, 84.
  10. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 28-29, 83-86, 89.
  11. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 133-134.
  12. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 140-141.
  13. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 145, 148-149.
  14. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 90, 152-153.
  15. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 179-181.
  16. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 182-183, 185.
  17. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 213-214.
  18. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 202.
  19. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 163-164.
  20. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 185-187.
  21. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 210, 217-218.
  22. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 200-203.
  23. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 214.
  24. Al Roker, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America’s Deadliest Natural Disaster (New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015), 214-215.
  25. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 216, 234, 257.
  26. Weather Almanac, 11th ed., s.v. “Hurricanes.”
  27. Patricia Bellis Bixel and Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Galveston and the 1900 Storm: Catastrophe and Catalyst (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2000), 48.
  28. Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (New York: Crown Publishers, 1999), 270.

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36 Responses

  1. The way the article is structured makes the read very engaging, with the three point of views of Isaac Cline, August Rollfing, and Dr. Samuel Young. The different perspectives, including the general people who were living the moment, and their ends each lend a hand to explaining how Man can never trump Nature, no matter what credentials or defenses we have; all we can do is escape or hide, hoping to be missed by whatever natural disaster. Even the perspective at the beginning, of those who were outside Galveston at the time, makes the article interesting, because it effectively conveys how close Galveston was to being completely wiped out, and the concern that comes from an abrupt loss of contact, foreshadowing the event that was to occur later in the article.

  2. I have never heard about this hurricane before and I have been to Galveston some times. While reading the article I was really interested in every detail it gave. It is crazy how sometimes we never hear about events like this but when we find out about them it brings us to an awareness of even when we think the situation is minor it could turn around be a major event.

  3. The format of the article makes it easy to understand what took place during the worst natural disaster in human history. I never truly knew the power that the hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900 had until reading this article. However, the way in which the people of Galveston in 1900 thought they could survive the natural disaster is a mindset that still exists today. With the latest hurricane, which was hurricane Laura, some landowners in Louisiana and East Texas chose to stay instead of evacuate. Even with a magnitude 4 hurricane, many people didn’t evacuate because they believe that they are survive the storm, which is the same thoughts that the people of Galveston had. It is so intriguing that 120 years can go bye and people still believe that they are capable of surviving a deadly natural disaster.

  4. If someone would ask me: ” What was the worst hurricane in American history?” my answer would have probably been “Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans”. I would have never imagined that the worst natural disaster in American history occurred less than 3 hours from our university in 1900. The powerful choice of words in the article emphasizes the tragedy that is shown in each of the images included. Quite different from the more common articles we read nowadays from major media outlets, I find it fascinating that the author included personal stories of real human beings that suffered the consequences of this devastating storm as opposed to providing statistics and reporting damages. The author’s research is defiantly appreciated

  5. I’ve heard of hurricanes being bad but not like this. I love how this article explains in detail and there life exprience because get gives me a more of an understanding. How clearing the author writes gives a clear imange of what’s going on. I like how they use Isaac as an example on his behalf of what was going on and how he felt about it.

  6. I have never heard of this hurricane before and I have been to Galveston far too may times. I loved the way this article was written, informative just as much clearly imaginative on what a day would feel for many victims of this tragedy. We can always hear about events like these but not quite get the full picture. It was smart to write on Isaac Cline and his actions that changed throughout the course of the hurricanes development. Seeing the story from his perspective gave legitimacy to the leadership at the time and the public’s trust towards his transparency. Although this was not the case for him and his actions were largely selfish and ignorant, we saw his character development quite nicely. This award was well deserved.

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