Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Great Storm

 My An Arkie's Faith column from the March 17, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

On September 5, 1900, the Galveston Daily News ran a notice in its weather section: A tropical disturbance was moving over western Cuba and heading for the south Florida coast. The message was datelined “Washington, D.C.,” September 4. 

At 6 a.m., September 6, Isaac Cline, the Weather Bureau’s chief Galveston, Texas observer, took the morning readings. Barometric pressure within the normal range with light winds. The sky over Galveston and out to the calm gulf was as clear and blue as it could be. At 8 a.m., the bureau confirmed the prediction it had telegraphed to Galveston the day before regarding Cuba’s disturbance. The storm is not a hurricane, and the course of this non-hurricane would not affect Galveston. The system, said the bureau, was “attended only by heavy rains and winds of moderate force” that could damage moored ships and shoreline property along the Florida coast.

Friday morning, September 7, everything stopped making sense. The Weather Bureau abruptly reversed its forecast and ordered Cline to raise the storm-warning flag. In Galveston Friday afternoon, a heavy swell formed southeast of the long Gulf beach. And it arrived with an ominous roar. A severe storm was on the way. While officials in Washington had recognized they were wrong about the storm’s track, on one point, they remained insistent: This could not be a hurricane.

4 a.m. Saturday, September 8, Isaac awoke with a start. He had a sudden feeling that water had flowed into the yard. From a south window, he peered down. The yard was underwater. The gulf was in town. Isaac sprang into action, urging beach residents and business owners to head for higher ground. At 3:30 Saturday afternoon, Isaac sent a cable to the Weather Bureau in Washington. “Gulf rising rapidly,” it read. “Half the city now underwater.”

Fifty people sought refuge in Isaac’s brick house, but the storm knocked it off its foundation Saturday night. All but 18, Cline wrote later, “were hurled into eternity,” among them his wife, Clara, pregnant with the couple’s fourth child. Across Galveston, the devastation was unimaginable. A Category 4 hurricane leveled the city and claimed at least 10,000 lives. The unnamed storm is still the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

Several years ago, a friend loaned me the book Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, which told about the hurricane by telling Isaac Cline’s story. Isaac was the chief meteorologist at the Galveston, Texas office of the U.S. Weather Bureau from 1889-1901. I used stories from the book as the basis for a sermon. After hearing the stories, Dave and Fay Wiebe brought me a hand-typed account by a relative who survived the storm. The statement was dictated and signed by Carrie M. Hughes and copied by Irby B. Hughes on August 9, 1957, in Palestine, Texas.

Carrie Hughes tells what happened that awful day. “The tremendous wall of broken houses and debris had struck our house, like a battering ram and crushed the underpart, letting the upper part into the water. As it settled down, I felt the ceiling touching the back of my head with the water just under my chin. Instantly, the house’s roof seemed to blow over from the south, throwing little Mattie and me into a corner of it. The next thing I knew, I felt ourselves slipping out. I clutched at the ceiling or walls but could catch hold of nothing as we slipped into the water. My hand was grabbed by Eliza Williams, a colored woman whom I knew well. She drew me partly onto the raft upon which she and her daughter Hattie Banks were floating.”

Five members of this family made it through the ordeal, and two did not. As I read the story, waves of emotion swept over me. I have read many survivor stories before, but this one seemed different, as it was a remembrance recorded so that family members would know what happened that night. Because of my friendship with the Wiebe’s, it seemed like I knew the person telling the story.

On the hand-typed pages, Carrie finished telling her story. “How gladly would we have lost every dollar we possessed could we have kept dear Mattie and Stuart with us, but we do not morn them as one without hope, knowing we shall meet them again. It is such a comforting thought that they were Christians. We do not know where their beloved remains are resting. It may be in one of the numberless unknown graves that dot the whole face of beloved Galveston. It may be they are resting in the depths of the bay or gulf, or their ashes may have mixed with the earth from which they sprung. Whatever may have become of them, we know they are safe in the arms of Jesus.”

More than 10,000 men, women, and children lost their lives during the Great Storm. It was the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the United States. I can’t imagine what the people of Galveston went through. Reading the story of her family as written by Carrie Hughes gave me an idea of the terror that people experienced. 

Gentle Reader, although it has been nothing like the devastation and terror that the people of Galveston experienced, the past year has been a difficult one for many of us. Last week, I attended two funerals in five days, one for a friend that I have known for forty years and one for my cousin, the best man at my wedding. When I attend a funeral, the words of Paul found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NKJV) always come to my mind. “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”


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