Galveston, September 8, 1900: When The Hurricane Struck

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Weatherman Joseph L. Cline worked late in the austere quarters of the Galveston office Friday nicht, September 7, 1900. A twenty-nine-year-old bachelor, a nondrinkcr in a city where liquor Rowed, and a man who was fascinated by his work, Cline did not object to the hours. Furthermore, his own brother Isaac was in charge of the office and had helped him get the job; Isaac was, he reasoned, entitled to loyalty.

Still, Joseph (Mine was weary, and he was looking forward to sleep. In addition to handling his usual duties that day, he and his brother and a third observer, John D. Blagden, had become increasingly concerned about a tropical cyclone whirling somewhere to the southeast, over the tepid Gulf of Mexico.

The storm had first been reported to Galveston on Tuesday, the fourth, when the Weather Bureau’s central oilier in Washington. D.C., sent a terse wire: “tropical storm disturbance moving northward over Cuba.” In those days only the central office had authority to issue storm warnings; about all anyone else could do was watch the weather, telegraph his own observations, wait for central office advisories, and distribute them when the time came.

But it had seemed, for this disturbance, that the time would not come. On Tuesday the storm had rolled across Cuba and was travelling almost due north, apparently heading for Florida. On the following morning its center was a short distance northwest of Key West. On Thursday, however, the storm had veered almost due west, and by Friday the center was somewhere southeast of the Louisiana coast.

At 10:30 that morning Isaac Cline had received notification that Galveston should be included in the storm warning. Five minutes later he ran two signal pennants up the pole atop the Levy Building, where the Weather Bureau was located. They flapped in a seventeen-mile-per-hour wind. Most Galvestonians knew that the red Hag with a black center meant that a storm of “marked violence” was expected. Above that Hag fluttered a white pennant: the storm would corne from the northwest. Since winds of a tropical cyclone blow counterclockwise around a relatively calm center, or eye, the central office had thus evidently forecast that the hurricane would move inland somewhere east of Galveston. Isaac reflected that if this happened the city would be in less danger, studies having shown that cyclone damage was less on the left side than on the right, where the speed of the storm s advance is added to the storm’s wind velocity.

That Friday morning the Galveston weathermen had noticed the first clear signs of an approaching hurricane: an increasing Gulf swell, rolling in from the southeast, and feathery cirrus clouds. The cirrus, too, came from the southeast; there were only a few at first, but a trained observer would know that they presaged heavier clouds.

During the day, Joseph had become aware of this tropical storm, hut his increasing anxiety was not much more than a weatherman s usual concern for contributing to an accurate forecast—for providing advance notice of a weather change.

Neither were other Galvestonians especially worried. Theirs was, after all, a substantial city: with 37,000 inhabitants, it was the fourth largest in Texas—a flourishing commercial center, a tourist attraction, a seat of culture. Moreover, the residents of this island municipality had become familiar with tropical hurricanes; Galveston had survived many in the past. First Hoors of residences and business buildings were elevated several feet above the sandy ground level as a safeguard against “overflows,” tidal inundations of the city. An overflow was frequently an occasion for a holiday—clerks went home and youngsters splashed in the streets. The atmosphere was like that in a northern city during a snowstorm.

As the storm edged closer late that Friday night, Joseph completed his day’s duties. Working by the light of a bare electric bulb, he finished a weather map, the only task now keeping him from sleep. Then he left the building and walked through empty, breeze-cooled streets to the post office, where he deposited the map for dispatch on an early-morning train to the Texas interior. Roused somewhat by the exertion, he then hiked more than a mile to his brother’s home, four blocks from the beach, where he had a room. At one o’clock he sank into bed; his sleep was restless despite his weariness.

Isaac Cline’s sturdy, two-story frame house was situated on a lot that was 5.2 feet above sea level. It had been built to withstand Gulf storms—to withstand the worst storm, in fact, that its owner could imagine, and he had been in the weather service eighteen years, eleven of them in Galveston. The first floor was elevated above the high-water mark of Galveston’s most recent big overflow, a storm in 1875 that had brought with it an 8.2-foot tide.

The house reflected the dine brothers’ methodical personalities. Both were practical, serious, rather scholarly men of remarkable integrity. Both had earned Ph.D.’s from AddRan College, now Texas Christian University in Korl’ Worth. Both were tall, slim, active; they prided themselves on their good health, which they guarded carefully. Isaac and his wile, Cora May, had three daughters, aged twelve, eleven, and six.