Dr. Isaac Cline knew it wasn’t just any storm as he galloped around Galveston on horseback warning people to get out.
The U.S. Weather Bureau forecaster had known a bad squall was coming. But it wasn’t until he saw the dropping mercury in his barometer that he realized a monster hurricane was about to hit.
His efforts to save lives couldn’t compare to Mother Nature.
On Sept. 8, 1900, 6,000 to 12,000 people died as the Category 4 storm ripped through the affluent port city on the Gulf of Mexico. Among those killed was Cline’s pregnant wife.
Earlier that day, Cline had set up his own home as safe shelter for people in his neighborhood whose houses had flooded in the storm surge. By evening, dozens of people were hunkered down with the Cline family.
Then tragedy struck home.
"At 8:30 p.m., my residence went down with about fifty persons who had sought it for safety, and all but 18 were hurled into eternity," Cline later wrote of the storm. "Among the lost was my wife, who never rose above the water after the wreck of the building. I was nearly drowned and became unconscious, but recovered through being crushed by timbers and found myself clinging to my youngest child, who had gone down with myself and wife."
Cline called the aftermath "the most horrible sights that ever a civilized people looked up."
Galveston, a sparkling city of 38,000 residents, was ruined. Once called the jewel of Texas, half the city’s buildings were washed away and perhaps as many as half its residents--not to mention seaside tourists.
"Where 20,000 people lived on the 8th not a house remained on the 9th, and who occupied the houses may, in many instances, never be known," Cline wrote.
Cline and fellow forecasters had issued warnings starting as early as four days before the storm, but there was no way to predict the hurricane’s ferocity. And there was no way to force people to leave. Instead of evacuating to safety, many stayed to watch the huge waves wash over the beach.
When the city was rebuilt, engineers erected a 17-foot seawall to keep out the waves should another 1900-scale storm occur. Galveston would never again claim its former prestige as a wealthy port and oceanside playground. But the wall still stands. And today, residents hope it protects them from the wrath of Rita.
Could the great storm of 1900 happen again in Galveston? 9 News meteorologist Howard Bernstein says "of course."
"It happened to New Orleans," he said.
Today’s storm-predicting technology is much more advanced Texas residents are heeding the warnings to flee the Gulf Coast. But there are many more people living along the shores and Rita appears to be a more powerful storm.
9 News chief meteorologist Topper Shutt said Rita is one of the most intense hurricanes in recorded history, but the lessons of Katrina will go a long way in saving lives.
"People understand now what a powerful storm can do," he said.
Kari Pugh/ WUSA