Invisible Iceberg: When Climate and Weather Shaped History

Invisible Iceberg: When Climate and Weather Shaped History

Chapter 30: America’s Worst Hurricane Boosts Houston

The city of Houston, Texas, with 2.3 million residents, is the fourth most populous city in the United States behind New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. It is third only to New York and Chicago in its concentration of Fortune 500 companies. Yet, this might have been the profile of another Texas city – Galveston – were it not for a hurricane more than a century ago. The Galveston hurricane was, and remains, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

On the morning of September 8, 1900, Galveston was the fourth largest city in Texas, slightly behind San Antonio and Dallas. It had the biggest port in the state, it boasted the first telephones and electric lights, and it had the most millionaires. Then everything changed. The city was all but destroyed when a category four hurricane bore down upon it. Tragically, the natural disaster was compounded by a disaster of weather forecasting.

The U.S. Weather Bureau, the predecessor of the National Weather Service, was then only a decade old. Its hurricane science was rudimentary. It relied on reports from ship captains in an era before most ships had wireless communication. In Cuba, where hurricanes are a fact of life, they had become good at tracking and even forecasting the storms. Cuba was reporting that the hurricane was heading to the Gulf of Mexico. The Weather Bureau, on the other hand, thought it would go across Florida and up to New England.

The bureau’s director, Willis Moore, was so persuaded he was right and also so territorial, that he blocked the Cuban reports and ordered U.S. forecasters not to issue any hurricane warnings that contradicted the official projections. Everything had to go through Washington, a slow process.

Two days before the storm hit, the Weather Bureau’s Chief Observer in Galveston, Isaac Cline, could see firsthand that the national forecast was off and that the hurricane was headed his way. On September 7, he ordered hurricane warning flags to be flown. The next morning, he hitched his horse to a cart and rode to the beach to warn the residents personally. He told everyone he saw to get to higher ground. Unfortunately, the highest ground in Galveston was only 8.7 ft/2.65 m above sea level.

When Cline told the former Chief Forecaster for the U.S. Signal Office, Henry Harrison Chase Dunwoody, of his concerns, Dunwoody replied, “No sir. It cannot be; no cyclone ever can move from Florida to Galveston.”[1] This hurricane is the basis of a book titled A Weekend in September, which chronicles how the arrogant U.S. government forecasters ignored the warnings that the hurricane was heading toward Texas. The hurricane (it had no name because, as noted earlier, they did not name hurricanes until 1953) brought winds of 135 mph/217 kph and a tidal surge of 15 ft/4.57 m. It destroyed more than 3,600 buildings. Between six and twelve thousand people were killed, among them Cline’s wife.

With Galveston largely destroyed, Houston’s growth accelerated. Its location, 50 mi/80.47 km farther from the Gulf of Mexico, made it safer, and with the invention of air conditioning (in 1902), its growth accelerated even more.

Damage from Hurricanes

In a recent book on the history of hurricanes, Furious Sky by Eric Dolin, the author estimates that, adjusted for inflation, the total damage from all the hurricanes in U.S. history exceeds a trillion dollars.[2] I suspect this is an underestimate. Hurricanes have likely killed well more than a hundred thousand people in the United States. If they all happened in one year, I suspect the financial impact would be closer to $5 trillion, or 25 percent of the entire GDP of the country.

Excerpted with permission. Invisible Iceberg: How Climate and Have Weather Shaped History by Dr. Joel N. Myers (Skyhorse Publishing, 2023). Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Joel N. Myers.


[2] Eric Dolin, Furious Sky (Liverlight, 2020).

Author Profile
Dr. Joel N. Myers
Founder & Executive Chairman - 

Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder and Executive Chairman of AccuWeather, is considered the “father of modern commercial meteorology” and the nation’s most respected authority on the business of weather. A visionary entrepreneur whom The New York Times named “the most accurate man in weather,” Dr. Myers started AccuWeather as a graduate student in 1962 and built the company into a global leader in forecast accuracy, weather-related big data, business and predictive analytics. Today, AccuWeather is recognized as the proven most accurate and most used source of weather forecasts and warnings in the world.

Dr. Myers joined the World Economic Forum community in Davos at Goals House in 2024 to launch his first book, Invisible Iceberg: When Climate and Weather Shaped History, which debuted as the #1 New Release in Weather on Amazon.

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