Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and Hurricane Harvey


The coast of the United States in general and Texas in particular experiences tropical storms on a regular basis. Hurricanes hit the Texas coastline, often causing property damage on different scales and, sometimes, fatal casualties. However, some of the hurricanes in the history of the Lone Star state mandate special attention due to the unprecedented magnitude of destruction and death they brought. If one searches for the worst hurricane to hit the United States, one should look no further than the Great Storm of 1900 that nearly wiped Galveston, Texas, off the map. More recently, devastating Hurricane Harvey of 2017 had also caused widespread destruction, property damage, and multiple deaths. Comparing and contrasting these two natural disasters and their effects on each other illustrate how different technological and organizational advances help in countering natural disasters. The impact of Hurricane Harvey when compared to that of the Great Storm reveals the effectiveness of the warning system and advantages of modern communications combined with historical experience, although property damage still stays extensive.

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The most apparent criterion to access the damage caused by a natural disaster is the number of fatal casualties – and in this respect, the Great Storm of 1900 remains the deadliest in American history. Precise estimations of the casualties differ due to the imperfection of the statistics. However, there is a consensus that no less than 6,000 people lost their lives when the hurricane hit (Weller et al. 1). Others raise the estimate as high as 8,000 deaths, but, in any case, the Great Storm of 1900 remains, by far, the deadliest hurricane in American history (Weller et al. 1). One may attribute these unprecedented casualties to the magnitude of the event – according to some estimations, the Storm of 1900 was no less than a five-category storm (Weller et al. 1). Still, the vast numbers of the dead suggest that the storm’s power cannot be the only explanation, and other factors likely contributed to the death toll as well. The most important of those was the fact that the hurricane struck the coastline unprepared due to the absence of an early warning system.

When compared to the Great Storm of 1900, Hurricane Harvey of 2017, for all its damage, still reveals a much more positive picture in terms of fatal casualties. According to the report by the National Hurricane Center, this time, the number of deaths amounted to dozens rather than thousands. Hurricane Harvey had caused 68 direct death in Texas, mostly in Harris country, where the damage was the worst (Blake and Zelinsky, p. 46). With 68 dead, Harvey was the deadliest hurricane in Texas in almost a century – specifically, since the cyclone of 1919 (Blake and Zelinsky, p. 1). Still, even these casualties are approximately 100 times lower than those in suffered the Great Storm of 1900. These comparatively low casualties speak of the efficiency of the early warning system. National Hurricane Center began providing “direct support to emergency managers on 22 August” – approximately two days before the hurricane hit Texas – and continued providing it until 30 August (Blake and Zelinsky, p. 13). Hence, Texas was much better prepared for Hurricane Harvey than it was for the Galveston Hurricane, and lower casualties speak for the effectiveness of the warning system created between 1900 and 2017.

One of the reasons why Texas was able to meet and endure Hurricane Harvey without such catastrophic casualties was the rapid advance in communications throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. To begin with, Texans of 2017 had extensive access to telephone communications, which provided for the better and more effective sharing of relevant information. However, Hurricane Harvey is also notable as one of the first large-scale hurricanes where the Internet and, specifically, social networks played a prominent role (King, p. 22). Even though the state government advised the citizens to use “traditional lines of communication like 911,” these were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of calls (King, p. 22). Under these circumstances, the people turned to social networks to obtain or distribute information (King, p. 22). As one can see, the Texans of 2017 had means of communication vastly superior to those available to their predecessors in 1900. Even with 911 lines overwhelmed, they still had a way of sharing information almost instantaneously, which contributed to decreasing the overall risks and casualties. Thus, comparing the Great Storm and Hurricane Harvey reveals immense progress in communication technologies.

Another factor that contributed to much better preparedness in 2017 than in 1900 was the historical experience. While early warning systems and communications are crucial, none of these will matter if they fail to convince the people to evacuate in time. In this respect, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 played an unexpectedly positive role. When interviewing those who have evacuated in time to escape Hurricane Harvey, Weller et al. established that the knowledge of the 1900 storm was one of the factors that influenced their decision to leave (p. 6). The most frequently mentioned reasons to go were having a secure place or the desire to protect family members, but the Great Storm had its shape of mentions as well (Weller et al , p. 6). People cited their knowledge of the Storm of 1900 as a reason to leave just as frequently as the fact that they lived alone, in a low place, or had a handicapped family member (Weller et al, p.  6). Hence, one of the reasons why Hurricane Harvey had a much smaller body count than the hurricane in Galveston was the Hurricane in Galveston itself – or, more accurately, the historical memory of it.

Another critical impact to compare is the property damage associated with both hurricanes, and the Great Storm of 1900 appears catastrophic in this respect as well. Naturally, it would be wrong to access its damage in the prices of its time and then compare it face-to-face with the material damage dealt by Hurricane Harvey. The US dollars of 1900 and 2017 have different purchasing power, and the accurate comparison of property damage in both cases has to account for this fact. Fortunately, Weinkle et al. calculated the property damage for 197 hurricanes from 1900 to 2017 and normalized it in 2018 US dollars. According to them, the damage caused by the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 amounted to $138.6 billion in current prices (Weinkle et al.). This fact makes the Great Storm not only the deadliest but also one of the costliest hurricanes in the history of the United States, second only to the Miami Hurricane of 1926 (Weinkle et al.). Considering this, one may conclude that the hurricane of 1900 in Galveston was virtually unprecedented in terms of both human casualties and property damage.

Hurricane Harvey proved less harmful in this respect as well, but the damage was still extensive. In 2018 prices, the losses incurred due to the hurricane amounted to no less than $62.2 billion (Weinkle et al.). While this number is more than two times lower than the tremendous damage of the Great Storm, it is, nevertheless, one of the costliest hurricanes in American history as well. In the rating of the most devastating hurricanes from 1900 to 2017, it occupies the 8th position – a clear enough testimony of its magnitude (Weinkle et al.). Thus, comparing the hurricane of 1900 in Galveston and Hurricane Harvey in terms of property damage reveals that material consequences of large-scale tropical storms remain disastrous regardless of the time period.


As one can see, comparing the Great Storm of 1900 in Galveston, Texas, and Hurricane Harvey illustrates considerable advances in saving people’s lives, while the property damage still amounts to dozens of billions of dollars. The Great Storm of 1900 caused from 6,000 to 8,000 fatal casualties and became the most deadly hurricane in American history due to the combination of its power and unprepared population. Hurricane Harvey, on the other hand, resulted only in 68 direct deaths in Texas, which testifies for the significant advances in the early warning and timely evacuation. One of the factors contributing to the significant reduction in body count is modern communication technologies ranging from telephones to the Internet and social networks. Another essential factor is the Galveston Hurricane itself, as the historical memories of it motivated Texans to evacuate in a timely fashion. However, in terms of property damage, the two hurricanes demonstrate no striking difference, and the losses still amount to dozens of billions of dollars in 1900 as well as in 2017.


  1. Blake, Eric C., and David A. Zelinsky. “” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Web.
  2. King, Larry J. “Social Media Use During Natural Disasters: An Analysis of Social Media Usage During Hurricanes Harvey.” University of Central Florida.
  3. Weinkle, Jessica, et al. “Normalized Hurricane Damage in the Continental United States 1900–2017.” Nature Sustainability, vol. 1, 2018, pp. 808-813.
  4. Weller, Susan C., et al. “Should I Stay or Should I Go? Response to the Hurricane Ike Evacuation Order on the Texas Gulf Coast.” Natural Hazards Review, vol. 17, no. 3, 2016, pp. 1-12.
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