How the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 Became the Deadliest U.S. Natural Disaster

The deadliest natural disaster in American history remains the 1900 hurricane in the island city of Galveston, Texas. On September 8, a category four hurricane descended on the town, destroying more than 3,600 buildings with winds surpassing 135 miles per hour.

Estimates of the death toll range from 6,000 to 12,000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Tragically, the magnitude of the disaster could’ve been lessened if the U.S. Weather Bureau hadn’t implemented such poor communication policies.

When the storm picked up in early September of 1900, “any modestly educated weather forecaster would’ve known that” it was passing west, says Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over in Cuba, where scientists had become very good at tracking storms in the hurricane-prone Caribbean, they “knew that a hurricane had passed to the north of Cuba and was headed to the Gulf of Mexico.”

The Weather Bureau in Washington, however, predicted that the storm would pass over Florida and up to New England—which was very, very wrong.

“I mean they were just way off target,” he says.

The Weather Bureau—predecessor to the National Weather Service—was only 10 years old, and hurricane science in the U.S. wasn’t very advanced. “Galveston occurred at a very interesting time in the science of hurricanes,” Emanuel notes.

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