Anyone who has lived in the Gulf South knows to become wary as the end of June approaches. That is when the tropical “waves” coming into the Atlantic off the western coast of Africa begin. In fact, June 30 is the official beginning of hurricane season. Many of these waves cross the Atlantic gain strength as they aim for the West Indies. A quick look at a map of the area will show that, if a storm rakes those islands, it is very likely to enter the Gulf of Mexico, raising fears along that long littoral and keeping residents glued to their radios and TVs in the hope that it will not strike their particular shore of the Gulf.
It was late August in 1900. The United States Weather Bureau was a young ten years old. Weather science was in its infancy. Few understood how these monster storms formed and how to predict the course they would take. There was, however, a Catholic college in Havana, Cuba with a certain Jesuit priest, Father Benito Vines, who knew more by the 1870’s than the U.S. Weather Bureau knew in 1900. Father Vines was fascinated by these tropical storms and their destructive power. When he arrived in Cuba from Spain in 1870, he observed first-hand destruction and loss of life from a hurricane. He resolved to do something to alleviate this situation. As a scientist at the Colegio de Belen in Havana, he knew it was important to observe the skies in anticipation of a storm. His educated eye taught him that the presence of certain types of clouds (rooster tails or cirrus) preceded the arrival of a hurricane by several days. He could tell by other types of clouds where the storm was located. He put all of his information into a device called an “inner phase cyclonoscope” which enabled him to pinpoint the exact location of the storm. And, depending upon the time of the year, he could predict where and when the hurricane would make its expected northward turn. Father Vines was a genius of meteorology and is considered the father of tropical meteorology. Because of this he became known as “Father Hurricane.”
On a practical note, Father Vines created a network of stations throughout the Caribbean with trained observers, runners, and messengers on horseback to watch for changes in the weather and spread the alarm. It was the most sophisticated system for predicting the arrival of a storm and informing the citizenry to evacuate to safer territory in place at the time. After Father’s death in 1893, Father Lorenzo Gangoite took his place at Belen and continued Father Vines’ work.
Fast forward to 1900, when, after the Spanish-American War, Cuba was occupied by American War Department for some time. Exhibiting the usual hubris, Big Brother from el Norte considered the “natives” of Cuba to be backward and ignorant. Unfortunately, the young and inexperienced U.S. weather bureau had the same attitude. Available to the Americans were the scientific writings of Father Vines and the entire network of observatories created by him. Willis Moore, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau could not accept that the “backward” Cubans could possibly know more than he did about weather and refused to allow their information to be transmitted over the telegraph network. This was a fatal mistake, for in late August of that year a “wave” formed off the African coast which would cause the biggest monster storm ever to strike the United States mainland, causing at the very least six thousand, and possibly as many as twelve thousand, deaths.
Galveston, Texas, was a thriving city on the island of the same name off the coast of southeast Texas. It was at the time competing with its mainland neighbor, Houston, as the most important city of southeast Texas. Many wealthy people came to Galveston because of its extensive beaches and its thriving port which primarily exported cotton from the fields of Texas. They built sturdy, large and beautiful homes, most of them on stilts because the island was only about five feet above sea level, and periodic storms could cause flooding. There was no seawall in anticipation of a really big storm. Isaac Cline was the head of the Weather Bureau stationed in Galveston. Isaac was from Tennessee and was very interested in how weather affected human health. He, too, built a large sturdy home there for his growing family. Isaac had a keen eye for weather, and Galveston presented a marvelous opportunity to observe sea and sky to anticipate incoming weather.
It was accepted theory at the time that a storm striking Florida would not enter the Gulf, but take a northern curve back to the Atlantic and up the east coast of the United States. This is the information that the Weather Bureau put out on Friday; they later changed their minds and decided that the entire storm had entered the Gulf. It is interesting that they were loath to use the term “hurricane” fearing that it would frighten people. Isaac had walked the beach in the predawn hours and watched the swells. They were enormous, and growing larger, giving him the premonition that they were a portent of tragedy, but he could only deliver approved information that came officially from Washington, where Willis Moore reigned like a king. Something had happened to the storm as it entered the excessively warm waters of the Gulf. It exploded into a monster and took direct aim over the open Gulf at Galveston, Texas.
Had the stubborn and proud Willis Moore made better use of the Cubans’ proven scientific knowledge compiled by Father Vines and Father Gangoite and employed their warning system, the tragically high death toll could have been avoided.
There are thousands of told and untold stories of the terrible loss of life in Galveston that day. One sad example of the devastation of Galveston has a Catholic connection. The destruction of Saint Mary’s Orphanage ranks as one of the most horrible stories of the storm. It was occupied by ninety-three children of varying ages and ten Sisters of the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, whose Mother Superior was Sister Mary Camillus Tracy, only thirty-one years old. Their building was a “fortress” of brick and stone just past the high tide line on the beach. As their building began to crumble from the pounding, ever-higher waves, Sister Camillus had each of the Sisters tie several of the younger children together with clothesline and then tie the line around each of the Sisters’ waists. Only three older boys remained independent. Then she led the Sisters and children in one of their favorite hymns “Queen of the Waves”* while the building crumbled around them. The building failed entirely to the relentless waves. All ten Sisters and ninety children died. The three boys survived by holding on to the same floating tree. Later a rescuer found a child’s corpse on the sand. As he lifted the child, a length of rope pulled out of the sand. There he found eight more children and a nun still tethered together. What Sister Camillus hoped would be their life line was the cause of the deaths of all of them as they became entangled in the wreckage.
The destruction of Galveston was just about complete. The number of dead will never be known for certain.
Much of the information in this short piece is gleaned from the book ISAAC’S STORM by Erik Larson and from the website of the Archdiocese of Miami where Belen College – a Jesuit high school – relocated after the Cuban Communists closed all Catholic and private schools. It is still a pioneer of meteorological study.
* Here is the song, from a YouTube video: