The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Hurricane Harvey slams Texas, a look at the most devastating storms in U.S. history

A hurricane in 1900 devastated Galveston, Tex., and killed at least 6,000 people. (AP Photo/Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word)

Vacationers flocking to the beaches and grand bath houses of the Oleander City – as Galveston, Tex., was called in 1900 – didn’t listen. Neither did most of the city’s 38,000 residents.

Fake news. That’s what they thought when weather scientists warned that a storm was coming and everyone should seek higher ground. The story was buried on Page 3 of the Daily News that morning, Sept. 8.

People paid dearly for ignoring the scientists.

Despite wind and rain that morning, folks went about their business. But by late afternoon, the houses along the beaches began crashing down. The bridges to the mainland collapsed. People trying to flee the winds were killed by hurtling bricks and lumber; some were decapitated by pieces of roof slate knifing through the air.

Between 6,000 and 8,000 were killed. A third of the city’s occupants were gravely injured. And two-thirds of the city — the fourth-largest in Texas at the time — was completely destroyed. The morning of Sept. 9, after a night of winds thought to have reached 120 miles per hour, Galveston was mountains of debris and bodies.

The Great Hurricane of 1900 in Galveston remains the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Now another monster storm, Hurricane Harvey, is slamming Texas. It roared ashore in Corpus Christi at 10 p.m. Central time Friday with 130 mph winds and as much as 40 inches of rain.  In addition to the ferocious winds and a storm surge that could reach 12 feet, Harvey could bring “catastrophic flooding” in the coming days, forecasters warned.

Complete coverage: Hurricane Harvey

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) had urged residents of low-lying areas to evacuate. It was unclear how many people heeded the warnings before the storm hit.

“I’m even seeing people in Corpus Christi say they think they’ll be fine and they’re just going to ride it out,” said Capital Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz, deputy weather editor for The Washington Post, on Friday. “Forecast technology has made it so we have a really good idea of what’s going to happen as much as a week in advance, but even just a day before the storm, people tend to deny the worst.

“That’s when you need a human forecaster to come in and say, ‘Hey — this is going to get really bad. Maybe you should consider the safety of your family,’ ” Fritz said.

For decades after the devastation in Galveston, even as meteorologists improved hurricane predictions, storms bore down on cities and walloped those who didn’t leave.

Among the costliest hurricanes in the United States hit Miami in 1926. It did $195 billion in damage, in today’s dollars. It ravaged a coast that had just undergone an explosive building boom. Little remained after the storm.

“We had never been through a hurricane in 1926, when we experienced our first one,” Floy Cooke Mitchell, wife of the former mayor of Boca Raton, told the Palm Beach Post. “We didn’t know all windows should be covered in a hurricane.

“I was watching as railroad cars were being knocked off the tracks and telegraph poles were snapped like toothpicks,” she said. “[Immediately] almost all the windows on the top floor were broken.”

The National Weather Service in Washington issued a warning on Sept. 14, as the storm hit the Bahamas. When it reached Miami four days later, it first hit as an intense storm but not a devastating one.

But it had a second act.

Forecasters seeing reports and tracking patterns issued a dire warning at 11 p.m. on Sept. 18, after most folks went to sleep.

The storm killed 372 people and left at least 43,000 homeless. There was a wall of water nearly 15 feet high rolling over Coconut Grove, and the storm surge crested at 12 feet at Biscayne Boulevard, according to the Miami Herald.

The first time a plane was used to study an oncoming storm was in 1935, days before the “Labor Day Hurricane” completely obliterated some of the towns along the Florida Keys.

That storm remains among the most intense to ever hit the United States. It killed a little more than 400 people. More than half of them were veterans who had been sent to federal work camps along the Keys as part of a Depression-era program to help unemployed veterans who had been descending on the nation’s capital.

The veterans were desperate. Gen. MacArthur ordered U.S. troops to attack them.

An evacuation train getting them to the mainland was completely blown off its track during the storm. No one was killed when that happened, but many of the 259 veterans who died in the storm were those left behind when the evacuation efforts failed.

By 1954, communications and tracking technology were improving, and the United States saw Hurricane Hazel coming as it killed hundreds of people in Haiti and destroyed the island’s coffee crops for years to come. When the storm landed along the Carolinas, folks along the coast were prepared.

But as it merged with a cold front and intensified, Hazel became a surprise for places unaccustomed to hurricanes. Dozens of trees on the U.S. Capitol grounds fell as Hazel clocked nearly 100 mph winds in Washington and Virginia. The storm swept on to Canada, where Toronto was hit on Oct. 15, leaving 81 people dead and nearly 4,000 homeless.

By 1969, satellite technology was a powerful tool in reading and predicting weather. But that did little to help the Mississippi Gulf Coast when Hurricane Camille did not take an expected turn to the east.

Biloxi radio stations broadcast frantic evacuation warnings as the water rose over bridges after the sudden change of course. But most folks in the western parts of the coast listened to New Orleans stations, and they didn’t broadcasting evacuation warnings.

About 250 people died in that hurricane. For years, a story — found later to be false by the New Orleans Times-Picayune — that 23 died while throwing a hurricane party and ignoring the evacuation warnings became a cautionary tale. Camille had the fastest recorded winds on record — 190 mph.

Here’s every billion-dollar weather disaster in the U.S. since 1980

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped across Florida. Although it was one of the most intense hurricanes to hit the country, it had a relatively low death toll — 65. That was largely thanks to an intense evacuation and preparation effort. There were 142 shelters opened, and more than 1.2 million people heeded the warnings and fled.

The storm helped meteorologists make big leaps in predicting weather patterns, and it helped expose shoddy construction practices across Florida.

And then, of course, there was Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that devastated New Orleans.

Many in the city didn’t evacuate, either because they lacked the resources to leave or because they were so accustomed to weathering hurricanes. But they didn’t know that the city’s levees would not be able to hold back the floodwaters. The storm killed 1,245 people in New Orleans and several hundred more in Mississippi. It inflicted $154 billion in damage.

More than a million people fled Louisina, Texas and the Gulf Coast following hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Historians said it was the sort of disaster-spurred migration last seen in the United States in the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl.

About a quarter of those people — 250,000 — landed in Houston. Though many returned to their homes or moved elsewhere, at least 100,000 of them stayed in Houston, changing the character of that city.

Today, they are reliving their nightmares as Hurricane Harvey swirls toward the place they’ve learned to call home.