On September 8, 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was hit with a category 4 hurricane. The city, which is located on an augmented and engineered barrier island, was demolished. Barrier islands are great for protecting coastlines and absorbing wave energy and not so great at maintaining geomorphic integrity. (the Newport peninsula, which forms a significant portion of my hometown, comes very close to being a barrier island.) Anyway. The highest points in Galveston 117 years ago weren’t much more than nine feet above sea level. The wind gusted at 145 miles per hour and the storm surge crested at 15 feet. The hurricane destroyed everything in its path. Homes were leveled and swept away. Thirty thousand people were left homeless.
“Thousands of Dead Strew The Ruins of Galveston,” read the headline of the San Francisco Call on September 10, two days after the storm hit. The meeting minutes book of the County Board of Directors of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic mutual aid organization, shows that J.J. Donohue, P.J. Kelleher, and several other officials held a special meeting at Hibernia Hall, their headquarters at 120 9th street, when news of the catastrophe became known.
O’Donohue, who was the President of the County Board, opened the meeting by stating the obvious. The AOH needed to decide if they could send money to the citizens of Galveston. “The object of this special meeting was to consider whether the AOH of San Francisco would deem it advisable to take … steps towards relieving the distress which prevailed among our members in Galveston, owing to the unfortunate condition of affairs with which they are confronted,” wrote the recording secretary P.J. Kelleher in his chunky, inelegant handwriting.
This was not a small matter. The AOH, along with other mutual aid organizations in San Francisco, had hundreds of members living and working in a city with no safety codes, no OSHA, no social services, nothing. If you lost your job, or broke your ribs in a motor accident, or got kicked in the skull by an irritated horse, you were on your own, unless you were a member of an mutual aid or “benevolent” organization like the AOH. If so, you received monetary benefits in lieu of compensation for lost wages, or sick pay. If your luck really ran out and you died from illness or in an accident, the AOH paid for your funeral expenses. In any case, they had you covered.
The meeting was called after the Board of Directors received a telegram from an Ancient Brother in Galveston, one J. G. Ganty. He asked the San Francisco Bros* to meet and discuss the matter. “Call special meeting of Hibernians,” wrote Ganty, adding simply, “Awful loss of life and money.”
This was correct. At least 6,000 people —and maybe as many as 8,000 or even 12,000—died. That’s a lot of people. About 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina. The Great Earthquake of San Francisco officially killed 3,000 people, although many believe librarian Gladys Hansen’s calculation, which puts the death toll closer to 6,000.
Ganty’s plea for help did not go unheard. The AOH had a membership that spanned many trades, and many income levels. After hearing suggestions from Brothers Mcfadden, Ryan, Conklin, O’Gara, Dignan, and Mahoney, and the order’s priest, Reverend D. Crowley, eleven branches from across the city pledged $150.00 for relief.
In addition to this sum, the County Treasurer of the AOH added $50.00 to be telegraphed to the County President of the AOH in Galveston. The San Francisco Call reported later that the AOH sent 500.00, (almost 15,000.00 adjusted for inflation) to Galveston, Texas.
It was all needed. The newspapers accounts from Galveston grew worse and worse as more bodies were uncovered, often “naked and mutilated beyond recognition”. Frantic attempts were made to find housing for those who had lost their homes and fears of water-borne pestilence were spreading.
It wasn’t just Hibernians helping Hibernians. All of San Francisco responded. The September 16th issue of the San Francisco Call lists hundreds of business and individuals who gave what they had—shoes, crockery, and, of course, money. Ms. Mable O’Connor, a “talented schoolgirl” who lived at 3443 19th street, raised 70.25 for Galveston. By January, the situation had improved enough for Galveston to report what had been spent to rebuild the city: 2,258,600.
It’s unclear (to me in my hasty research into Galveston’s disastrous past) how much of that money came in the form of relief, sent by individuals and organizations and how much came from the administration of President William McKinley, who, during the worst of the hurricane’s impacts, lay dying from the gunshot he received at the hands of assassin Leon Czolgosz. The Army Corps of engineers did help build a seawall, intended to protect Galveston from future hurricanes, something it couldn’t do three days ago on Friday, August 25th, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall.
It’s truly a bummer that once again, as Texas faces a fearsome storm, America has a useless President. (Happily, the process of directing emergency aid isn’t linked to media ratings.) How will America respond to Galveston, 117 years later? The pictures of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and his deputies performing rescues is cause for hope. But neither they, nor the thousands of other emergency personnel rescuing entire cities can do much after people are pulled from inundated houses.
There’s been some misplaced schadenfreude over the fact that it’s Texas, California’s weird shadow nemesis with its climate deniers, its theocrats, its racists, its wall-loving Trump supporters that’s getting its ass kicked by Mother Nature. Are they reaping what they’ve sown? Nah. Hurricanes don’t crash into cities to teach people hard lessons. (and really: miserable people stay miserable, unless they are helped.) Hurricanes are forces of nature and go where they can go.
What happens after that is entirely up to humanity.