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In Texas, Rita Stirs Memories of U.S.'s Deadliest Storm

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
September 23, 2005
 
Hurricane Rita's approach toward the Texas coast has raised the specter
of a long-ago killer storm, which struck before meteorologists were able
to track hurricanes with radar and weather satellites.

On September 8, 1900, a powerful hurricane buried the thriving port city of Galveston in a storm surge of almost 16 feet (5 meters). Conservative estimates put the death toll at 6,000, but 8,000 or more probably died.

The unnamed hurricane that nearly scraped Galveston off the map 105 years ago was very similar to Hurricane Rita.

The 1900 hurricane is thought to have packed winds of 130 to 140 miles an hour (210 to 225 kilometers an hour), which would make it a Category Four hurricane on today's Saffir-Simpson scale.

As of 5 a.m. today, Hurricane Rita's strongest winds were blowing at 140 miles an hour.

Over the past two days, millions of residents along the Gulf Coast have been streaming inland to avoid Rita, which is expected to make landfall Saturday near the Texas-Louisiana border.

Unlike today's evacuees, however, Galveston residents in 1900 had no idea what was in store for them as the storm drew near their island city of 37,000.

Ida Smith Austin, who survived the hurricane, said she knew bad weather was expected, but she and her husband didn't alter their plans.

"A storm had been predicted for Friday night the seventh of September, but so little impression did it make on my mind that a most beautiful and well attended moonlight fete was given at our home Oak Lawn that night," Austin wrote in a letter dated November 6, 1900.

The following day, as the hurricane drew nearer, the storm surge began to cover Galveston.

"In a few minutes, we heard the lapping of the salt water against the sidewalk, and then it slowly crept into the yard," Austin wrote. "In an incredibly short time, the water surged over the gallery driven by a furiously blowing wind."

The storm surge crushed buildings and pushed them into a huge pile. The debris became like a giant bulldozer blade, knocking down more buildings as the surge moved across the island.

After the storm, Galveston residents were determined to rebuild their city and prevent a recurrence of the tragedy. The buildings that survived were raised, and sand from the Gulf of Mexico was pumped onto the island to lift it eight feet (two and a half meters) above sea level. A 17-foot-tall (5-meter-tall) seawall also was built to protect Galveston from storm surges.

Galveston leaders a century ago probably thought this dramatic effort would protect the city from whatever the Gulf of Mexico could throw at it. But they didn't envision a storm like Rita.

Depending on where Rita makes landfall, hurricane forecasters fear the storm could bring a surge of more than 20 feet (6 meters) into Galveston Bay, which would easily overtop the city's seawall.

Willie Drye is author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic Books.

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