Pick from the Past
Natural History Magazine, September 1943

Nine-Day Wonders

The story of one of North America’s greatest natural disasters, with a
popular explanation of how and why hurricanes roar up out of the breathless
doldrums one to twenty times each year to destroy what lies in their path

EPTEMBER 7th, 1900, was clear day in Galveston, Texas, a type for which the city is famous. A constant breeze from the Gulf pushed back the continental heat and brought comfort to inhabitants of the Island. Only Mr. Cline, the weatherman, as a part of his routine duty noted the high cirrus clouds moving from the southeast.

Waterfront life moved in its usual bustle throughout the morning. The afternoon arrival of a heavy swell from the southeast caused only a minor flurry among deck hands and dock workers as they shifted hawsers under strident voices of deck officers who sought a firmer bond with land. The waning sun gave way to darkness, and Galveston settled to rest in the ceaseless roar of breaking swells.

By five o’clock the following morning the city was awake to comment on the abnormal tide. In spite of a gentle breeze off the land, the sea perversely rose into lower portions of the city. Some were not only awake but were busily engaged in rescuing stores from salt water. Over all boomed the roar of surf, thundering persistently on the south shore of the Island at intervals of from one to five minutes. There was an ominous overtone in the monotony.

Somewhere in the doldrums west of the Cape Verde Islands, sometime during the preceding weeks, the sun beat down on a calm ocean. Heat waves rolled over the oily surface, and from it rose enormous volumes of heated air, saturated with ocean vapor. The air rose gently at first, for its buoyancy was slight. As each molecule mounted, another moved in from the side to replace it; the motion was moderate but on a vast scale. The earth’s rotation imparted a spin to the currents, and as the warmed air spiraled to higher levels of lower pressure it expanded. With expansion came cooling; with cooling came precipitation; from precipitation came latent heat to rewarm the air and quicken the movement. Light airs flowing gently over the surface of the ocean became a breeze, increased to a wind, mounted to a full gale, rotating counterclockwise. Thus a hurricane was born.

Caught in gentle Westerly Trades, the newborn monster—offspring of tropical calm, torrid heat, and ocean moisture—moved ten to thirty miles an hour, west and north. Lean and voracious at birth, it fattened on each northward mile, eventually to gain a diameter of destruction 300 to 600 miles in extent. Each league northward increased the earth’s rotational effect on the storm path, deflecting the disturbance from west through north, toward the east.

It whirled south of Santo Domingo, cut northward to rip across western Cuba. It might have followed the path of its predecessors up the Atlantic coast, but a wall of high barometric pressure to the north proved an insurmountable barrier. Thwarted on the Gulf side of the Florida Peninsula, the hurricane moved west, almost parallel to the Gulf Coast.

South of the Mississippi Delta the tempest reached full maturity. Shaped like a cosmic phonograph record—hundreds of miles across but merely thousands of feet thick—the maelstrom of screaming
South of the Mississippi Delta the tempest reached full maturity, its screaming winds whirling at 120 miles an hour.
winds whirled at 120 miles an hour. At the ocean surface winds spun at steadily increasing velocity toward the center of the storm. Near the vortex the centrifugal force of their rotation restrained them from closing in, and displaced by a following mass of air, they mounted vertically. At the vortex—the “eye” of the storm—there remained a circle of incredible calm of sunshine on raging waves. And there, for the first time in hours, a captain on the bridge might see as far as the length of his ship.

But this was no haven of peace. Within the eight- or ten-mile circle of sunshine the confused ocean writhed from the torture of wild winds and torrential rain which, for the moment, had passed on. On land the “eye” would be a breathless interlude between chaos and confusion, for the arrival of the windless vortex marks the passage of only half of a hurricane.

Moving westward across the Gulf of Mexico, the roaring spiral held up a mound of ocean ten to twenty feet high in the eye of the storm. Each day of its life the hurricane lifted two billion tons of vapor from the ocean and each day poured back the same weight; torrential rain fell an inch an hour. At lower levels there was no boundary between air and water. Hurled by gusts mounting to 140 miles an hour, the mixture of spindrift and rain struck with the bruising impact of flung gravel.

Winds raged with maximum violence in the front, right-quarter of the storm where forward movement of the mass augmented wind velocity. Air in the opposite sector, retarded by the same forward movement, moved at lower speeds, from 90 to 110 miles an hour.

Vicious air heaved the ocean into gigantic windrows that moved with the speed of wind. Greatest confusion reigned in the following half of the hurricane for here waters buffeted first by winds from the right of the storm path were suddenly struck by shrieking gales from the left. Contorted by wave motions from divergent directions, the ocean leaped and fell in mobile hysteria. Pyramidal waves sank as abruptly as they had risen, leaving vast holes bounded by leaping masses of sea.

At the front of the tempest, titanic waves, moving with irresistible momentum, escaped the grasp of the storm and fled from its fury. Moving into regions of light airs and calm seas, they were reduced in height and widened into broad swells. Traversing five, four, three, two hundred miles, they thundered a warning on the shores of the Gulf. When the hurricane struck Galveston, the city had prepared for the attack as best it could. Rain fell on beleaguered Galveston in the morning of the 8th, and from that time on there was no relief from the deluge. The winds shifted from north toward east, and with each degree of shift they gained in force and velocity. Inhabitants living near the beach sought safety in the center of the city, and those already there chose the strongest shelters available. By three o’clock in the afternoon Gulf waters lay three to four feet deep on the city, and thereafter people moved from shelter only under threat of imminent death. A full gale howled through the streets, ripping off a roof here and there and using it to batter down walls to leeward. Coastal folks, accustomed to the might of storm waves on the beach, now hovered in terror as the waves battered their homes to kindling.

Mr. Cline, the United States weather observer, stood in the doorway of his home, which rested on an elevation fifteen feet above tide. On the second floor were his family and 50 other terrified citizens vainly seeking a haven. Faithful to his duties even at this moment, he made mental notes of the catastrophic phenomena about him. Even as he watched, there was a sudden surge that lifted and held the water more than waist-deep.

At eight p.m. there was moment’s pause as the east edge of the vortex passed over Galveston. Having dealt destruction with a colossal right hand, the tyrant in an instant rained blows on the island city with an equally deadly left. Striking abruptly with a force of 57 pounds on each square foot, hurricane winds grasped waves
Cline, three of his children, and his brother clung to floating wreckage. For three hours they moved with the storm, climbing from raft to raft, dodging flying timbers.
already mountainous and flung them against the city. Destruction advanced street by street, creating battering rams as it leveled houses and with these weapons devastated each succeeding row.

At eight-thirty Mr. Cline’s home disintegrated, and most of the refugees within, including his wife, sank from sight. Struck by a flying timber he lost consciousness, but later recovered to find himself clinging to his youngest child. Cline, three of his children and brother clung desperately to floating wreckage. Later they pulled a child and a woman from the raging waters. For three hours they moved with the storm, climbing from raft to raft, dodging flying timbers, sighting neither house nor inhabitant. It was by freak of fortune and storm that these terrified beings ended their journey not 300 yards from where it began, as their refuge of the moment grounded in subsiding waters.

Six thousand people suffered Mrs. Cline’s fate; 3,600 houses were totally destroyed and not a structure in the city escaped serious damage.

The hurricane roared northward across Texas toward the trough of low pressure. Deprived of its nourishing vapor, the tempest weakened, but swinging sharply northeast it sucked new life from fresh waters and littered Michigan beaches with debris. It crossed the valley of the St. Lawrence and moved out over the North Atlantic.

There was everything tragic but nothing unusual in the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Even the path which led it to the Texas coast was not unique. The city had heard the roar of big winds before, and confident that this was not the last, Galveston fortified itself with a sea wall which has since withstood similar attacks.

There is nothing new in hurricanes. Columbus heard of the “big winds” from the Carib Indians who called it Hunrakan, after their god of stormy weather. Before Columbus and since, one to twenty times each year, sometimes thrice in a single week, hurricanes have roared out of the doldrums into upper latitudes. They have terrific energy, and their average life covers nine days of destruction.

In Jamaica there is a jingle which warns the inhabitants when to expect the big winds:

June too soon,
July stand by;
August look out you must,
September remember,
October, all over.

But just as June is not always too soon, neither do hurricanes always avoid Jamaica in October.

Spaniards of colonial times were aware of seasonal variations in hurricane paths. The Church decreed that “Ad repellendat tempestates” be included in all masses recited in Puerto Rico during August and September but not in October, whereas the same appeal was ordered in Cuban devotions during September and October.

Mighty tropical winds are not limited to the Caribbean; they are a common offspring of areas of calm the world over. The Chinese tai-fun (big wind), the Philippine baguios, the Australian willy-willy, the Bay of Bengal typhoon are all hurricanes under another name. In the Northern Hemisphere these storms always revolve counterclockwise and move first northwest, later swinging northeast. Their cousins in the Southern Hemisphere rotate clockwise, moving first southwest, later recurving southeast.

That there is less loss of life from hurricanes in the twentieth century that before is due largely to the astuteness of Willis L. Moore, onetime Chief of the Weather Bureau. At the outset of the

Hurricanes have changed the course of history more than once. A South Pacific typhoon that struck Apia, Samoa, in 1889 blew away a war then brewing between the United States and Germany.
Spanish-American War, Moore took a long view through history and saw that more armadas had been destroyed by weather than by the enemy. He placed the facts before President McKinley in graphic form, who, after he had examined the evidence, stated to Moore: “I am more afraid of a West Indian hurricane than the entire Spanish Navy. Get this [hurricane warning] service inaugurated at the earliest possible moment . . . ” Today no convoy leaves the United States Coast, east or west, without full knowledge and careful consideration of the weather to be encountered.

Hurricanes have changed the course of history more than once. A south Pacific typhoon that struck Apia, Samoa, in 1889 blew away a war then brewing between the United States and Germany. The United States was resentful when Germany, pushed by Bismarck, captured the native ruler of Samoa and set up a Quisling--a prelude to complete confiscation of the island. The natives rebelled, and Germany declared war against them.

German warships shelled helpless native villages and destroyed American property in complete abandonment. Very shortly three American warships confronted as many German men- of-war in Apia harbor, and the matter came quickly to the verge of actual combat.

At this moment a typhoon roared down the bottle-neck of the harbor and, despite all anchors and full steam into the wind, sank the six vessels. Forgiving Polynesians rescued American and German sailors alike at the risk of their own lives. Lacking ships with which to carry on the dispute, the matter was submitted to negotiations and the freedom of Samoa was guaranteed for many years by the Treaty of Berlin in 1889.

There was one innocent bystander who escaped harm and taught a lesson. At the height of the storm, the forces of the wind against the bare masts and yards of the American and German warships was greater than the strength of their feeble engines and they were unable even to hold to their anchorage. But the British warship “Calliope,” one of the earliest designed to move by strong engines alone rather than by sail and steam, steamed out of the harbor into the teeth of the typhoon and reached the safety of the open sea.

This accomplishment opened the eyes of our Navy Department to the advantages of stronger engines and fewer sails on men-of-war, and the sunken vessels were replaced with ships adequately powered. The present American Navy is a monument to the sailors lost at Apia, Samoa, on March 16, 1889. Thus did a big wind in the South Pacific leave its imprint on the course of history.

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