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Dolly Hearkens to Deadliest U.S. Hurricane Ever

With Hurricane Dolly bearing down on Brownsville, Texans can say they know a thing or two about horrific storms. The state is second only to Florida in the number of direct hurricane hits.

And while Dolly is expected to cause serious flooding, it is unlikely to be anything like the deadliest hurricane ever to strike the United States, one that struck Galveston, Texas, more than a century ago.

Early on the evening of Sept. 8, 1900, a powerful Category 4 storm, with sustained winds over 130 mph, roared ashore. Storm surges of 8 to 15 feet swamped all of Galveston Island and inundated other parts of the nearby Texas coast, according to a National Hurricane Center historical account.

Half the homes on Galveston were swept away, according to NOAA, the hurricane center's parent organization. The storm left somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 dead. Most of the deaths were due to the storm surge.

In the entire Atlantic Basin, only an October 1780 hurricane that killed 20,000 or so on Caribbean islands was deadlier.

Things were different back then. There were no satellites, of course, and no radar. Weather forecasts were less accurate and provided less warning time. The 1900 hurricane came in from the Caribbean, across the Gulf of Mexico, swooped up through Texas and across the Midwest before finally skirting Canada and shooting back into the Atlantic.

Warnings were issued by what was then known as the Weather Bureau. The real problem, according to a NOAA analysis: "Many didn't heed the warnings, preferring instead to watch the huge waves."

The following account of the water's rapid rise comes from Isaac M. Cline, the senior Weather Bureau employee in Galveston at the time:

"By 8 p.m. a number of houses had drifted up and lodged to the east and southeast of my residence, and these with the force of the waves acted as a battering ram against which it was impossible for any building to stand for any length of time, and at 8:30 p.m. my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but eighteen were hurled into eternity. Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered though being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child, who had gone down with myself and wife."

Cline floated with small group of other people for three hours until the water began to drop.

"We landed about 11:30 p.m., by climbing over floating debris to a residence on Twenty-eighth Street and Avenue P," he wrote.

Between 1900 and 2004, Florida was hit by 64 hurricanes, Texas absorbed 38, and North Carolina took the brunt of 29. Over the past century, conditions have changed as the planet has warmed. Scientists now say the Atlantic hurricane season is getting longer, with strong storms emerging earlier in the season.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.