SR SSD 2000-22
Centennial of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Bill Read, MIC and Gene Hafele, WCM
Throughout this year activities have been underway in the Houston/Galveston area which will culminate in the centennial anniversary of the hurricane which struck Galveston on September 8, 1900. The storm resulted in at least 8000 deaths on Galveston Island and the nearby Texas coast, and it easily ranks it as the deadliest natural disaster ever to affect the United States. Modern day estimates rate the storm as Category 4 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. As part of the commemoration, WFO Houston/Galveston centered their hurricane preparedness work this year around historical aspects of the event. The following is a summary of activities which have occurred so far, and those yet to occur as the centennial date approaches. The main theme used by the NWS during the past year has been, "The 1900 Storm: Can it happen again?"
Each year NOAA and the NWS arrange a hurricane preparedness tour, which features NOAA P-3 "hurricane hunter" aircraft flights along the Gulf or Atlantic coastline - in alternating years. As part of the 2000 tour along the Gulf coast, a stop was arranged in Galveston on May 2. Approximately 300 students learned about hurricane preparedness. They also had an opportunity to talk with the aircraft flight crew members and scientists. While these activities were going on at the airport, NHC representatives briefed emergency management officials from the upper Texas Gulf Coast. A tour of Galveston Island and the significant 1900 storm sites was provided to the attendees at the briefings. The highlight of the tour was the showing of the Great Storm production at Pier 21. On the evening of May 2 a Galveston town meeting was held at which NHC Director Max Mayfield was the keynote speaker. The meeting was attended by over 300 Galveston area citizens.
This year's annual Houston/Galveston Hurricane Workshop took place on May 10, sponsored by the East Harris County Manufacturers Association (EHCMA). Approximately 700 interested citizens, emergency response personnel, industry and media representatives participated. More than 20 vendors were also in attendance, including the Red Cross, Home Depot, private weather services, and insurance companies. Presentations at the workshop focused on historical and present day aspects of the 1900 storm. WFO Houston senior forecaster Lance Wood put together a video which told the story of the 1900 hurricane, starting with local beliefs and meteorological understandings that were prevalent in 1900, and ending with recovery efforts and the building of the famous Galveston seawall. The video was premiered at the workshop and has been shown numerous times since in hurricane preparedness meetings. About 50 copies of the video have been distributed to emergency management offices in the area and to other interested agencies for use in community preparedness activities. Another highlight was a hurricane resource booklet prepared in conjunction with this year's workshop. More than 6000 copies of the booklet were initially printed, and Exxon/Baytown printed an additional 5000 copies for their employees.
In addition to the video developed by Lance Wood, WCM Gene Hafele and MIC Bill Read worked with Harris County (Houston) officials on a project to determine the effects a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would have on the county and surrounding areas. In the first phase of this project a video was developed depicting a Category 5 storm making landfall along the upper Texas coast. It dramatically showed the disastrous effects such a storm would have on the Houston/Galveston region. This video was also premiered at the Houston/Galveston Hurricane Workshop and fit the theme of "Can it happen again?" Numerous copies of this video have also been distributed across the area to be shown at hurricane preparedness meetings.
On May 23 Bill Read and Gene Hafele participated in the first ever Brazoria County Hurricane Preparedness Meeting. Speakers focused on the possible effects a storm equivalent to the 1900 hurricane would have on Brazoria County. The meeting was attended by nearly 500 concerned citizens from southern Brazoria County, where many petrochemical companies are located.
In addition to the public meetings noted above, the WFO staff members also conducted about 70 hurricane preparedness meetings for local communities, businesses and civic organizations. A total of over 4000 citizens were reached through such local preparedness activities.
Beginning in September, 1999, WFO Houston/Galveston has worked with the local organization called 1900 Storm Committee to coordinate events which focus on commemorating the 1900 storm. The first big event was a Galveston Chamber of Commerce luncheon on September 8, 1999, at which Eric Larson, author of the book Isaacs's Storm, was the guest speaker. The 1900 Storm Committee participated in the Hurricane Preparedness Tour activities on May 2 in Galveston, and also the Houston/Galveston Hurricane Workshop. On February 16, 2000, during the Interdepartmental Hurricane Conference, a tour of the Galveston Historical Museum was arranged for participants. This museum features many pictures of Galveston before, during and after the 1900 storm, along with a film which was shot by Thomas Edison shortly after the storm showing the massive damage. As a part of this tour a special plaque was presented by NWS Director Jack Kelly which commemorates the 1900 storm. The plaque will be placed on the Levy Building, where the U.S. Weather Bureau office was located at the time of the hurricane.
The Houston Chapter of the American Meteorological Society will hold a special meeting on September 7 to commemorate the storm. Several experts will speak about the events of the storm as they know it. Bill Read will address how, in spite of vast improvements in hurricane forecasting, the potential for a similar disaster still exists in the Houston/Galveston region. One significant difference does exist, however, between today and 1900: then, the popular wisdom was that "it can't happen here;" today, we know it can unless proper preparedness efforts are undertaken.
The culmination of the 1900 Storm Committee activities will take place beginning on Thursday, September 7, and continue through the weekend. Details concerning all of the activities that will take place that weekend can be found at www.1900storm.com. The big event will take place on Friday evening - a "Centennial Tribute." Dan Rather, CBS News, will be the keynote speaker for the evening. Texas native Dan Rather first made a name for himself when he broadcast the first live radar on television in 1961 as Hurricane Carla approached the Texas Coast. Other special guests include Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and NOAA Administrator Dr. James Baker.
Local newspapers, radio and television stations have interviewed Bill Read and other WFO staff members concerning events surrounding the 1900 storm related activities. The interviews will be used on specials that are being prepared by the different media outlets for release just prior to the anniversary.
Because of the interest generated by the centennial activities, hurricane preparedness in the Houston/Galveston reached higher levels than in recent years. The upper Texas Coast has not been visited by a hurricane for more than 10 years - since two Category 1 storms, Chantal and Jerry, made landfall in 1989. The last major hurricane was Alicia in 1983. Should a Category 4 or stronger hurricane make landfall it is estimated over one million people will need to evacuate inland from just the Houston/Galveston region. Many of these citizens have never experienced a hurricane, much less a major hurricane, and local emergency managers are not sure how citizens will react when asked to evacuate inland.
The potential for a large loss of life exists along the upper Texas Coast due to the increase in population, greater exposure to potential storm surge, and the lack of experience. A fundamental purpose of the NWS involvement in all of the 1900 storm commemorative activities has been the hope that increased awareness created by a look back at the most devastating storm in the nation's history - measured in terms of loss of life - will serve to educate the citizens of the upper Texas Coast and minimize the potential for destruction and loss of life in any future storm.