“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

“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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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Stephanie Cerda

    I’m from Houston as well, and I feel for this article a lot. It’s hard to face tropical storms and hurricanes. I’ve been through all the hurricanes and I can see the parallels between then and now. Even though time has passed, the tragedies that occur with a natural disaster remain the same. The feelings of devastation are the same. I feel terrible for Cline, he felt so guilty. I don’t think it was his fault, it’s impossible to prevent things like this. I do agree that we need to be more knowledgeable on our climate, especially now with the climate change the world is experiencing.

  2. Avatar

    This disaster was truly a disaster of massive proportions. The fact that this massive tragedy could have been avoided makes it all the more tragic. This article truly tells a morbid but gripping story, giving the reader the ability to imagine what is going on with great detail. The imagery, while horrifying, is astounding, and I do believe this is a very good article. It is truly unexpected that such a storm hit Texas instead of a state with a past of many more storms, such as Florida. Either way, this was truly a horrible situation consisting of the water, the wildlife, and the architecture turned weapons. We must truly be thankful for our much better modern storm sensing equipment.

  3. Avatar

    Wow this article was very well-done. It did a great job describing the tragedy that took place in Galveston in September of 1900. What made the article particularly interesting was how it followed the story of Isaac and Cora instead of simply telling about the event. As far as the natural disaster, it was extremely horrific and Galveston would never be the same. It is crazy to imagine what Galveston could have been like had this not taken place.

  4. Avatar

    Hurricanes are deadly and it affects a lot of people. I remember Hurricane Katrina and how it caused a lot of damage to Louisiana. Then Harvey came along and I was worried about my family members who were living in Houston. Young saw the signs of a hurricane coming but was unable to warn the city. He had adrenaline in him and he should have given a warning sign to the people who were enjoying the water up to their knees.

  5. Jose Chaman

    Excellent article Kenneth! It is really sad to know how devastating was this storm and how Cline felt guilty for not having notified the storm in time, I cannot imagine the pain that he went through. Also, utilizing personal experiences from different members of Galvestone enhance the relationship between the reader and the article, a really great writing strategy! Stories like this leave us great lessons, however, due to the intensity of climate change nowadays, very little we can do to prevent these natural disasters, it is a good topic for reflection.

  6. Avatar

    Great article. Being from the Houston area, this article is especially personal to me. I have mostly only heard about it because of the recent Hurricane Harvey and its effects having parallels drawn to this incident. Hearing the stories of the individuals and their families who were impacted by it is heartbreaking. Feeling personally responsible for natural disasters is a sentiment that people today cannot relate to, but I imagine during the time it was devastating to feel this way; especially being the person meant to report one coming their way.

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