A Tale of Two Hurricanes: Galveston and New Orleans

A Tale of Two Hurricanes: Galveston and New Orleans

Nicolaus Mills compares the impact of Hurricane Katrina to that of the Galveston hurricane of 1900

When we think of New Orleans and its recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the comparisons that come to mind most often are Chicago after the fire of 1871 and San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906. The Phoenix-like rise of these two cities seems like nothing so much as a lesson in how to rebuild after a disaster.

But as the recovery of New Orleans languishes and its scattered poor struggle to take root elsewhere, there is a third city—Galveston, Texas—that we ought to consider when thinking of post-Katrina New Orleans. In contrast to Chicago and San Francisco, Galveston offers a cautionary tale that suggests recovery from a disaster can, even with the best of intentions, be limited in scope and close out rather than open up opportunity.

Galveston’s disaster story began on September 8, 1900, when the city was struck by a category four hurricane that took an estimated 6,000 lives, one-sixth of the city; destroyed 3,600 homes; and caused $30 million in damage. It was the worst natural disaster in American history.

Galveston’s relief effort started immediately. On Sunday, September 9, one day after the hurricane, Mayor Walter C. Jones appointed a Central Relief Committee, made up of Galveston’s leading citizens, who took charge of each of the city’s twelve wards. Two days later, the mayor confiscated all foodstuffs and made sure that they were sold and distributed at reasonable prices. There was, however, no way the city could support itself for long, and soon help arrived. From nearby Houston, the steamer Lawrence bore several tons of provisions and 100,000 gallons of fresh water. At the same time, under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Scurry, two hundred militiamen from the Texas State Volunteer Guard came and put an end to the scattered looting that had occurred.

The following week, American Red Cross founder and president Clara Barton, who had gained fame during the Civil War, took charge of what would be, at age seventy-eight, her last great relief effort. Money was no object. Donations poured in from across the country. New York State sent $94,000. A bazaar at the Waldorf-Astoria netted $50,000. Journalist William Randolph Hearst sent $50,000. For months, the railroads gave free passage anywhere in the nation to victims of the hurricane, and there was plenty of work to go around. Galveston paid wages of $1.50 to $2.00 per day plus food and housing.

What followed was a successful relief effort. In November, the Red Cross left Galveston, satisfied with the job it had done, and by February 1901, the Central Relief Committee closed its commissary. Galveston now faced the more difficult, long-term question of how it would rebuild. As an island-city on the Gulf of Mexico, Galveston had two overriding, New Orleans–like problems: how to keep out the surrounding water in the face of future hurricanes and what to do about its low-lying buildings, which were vulnerable to flooding.