So when the deadliest natural disaster to ever strike the United States set its sights on Galveston, Texas, the bustling seaside village had no way of knowing that a monstrous hurricane was bearing down on them with incredible fury.
"We didn't have any way to monitor hurricanes and tropical storms very well," said Dr. Steve Lyons, Tropical Weather Expert at The Weather Channel.
Turn-of-the-century Galvestonians had weathered storm-driven floods in the past, but the lack of a serious weather event led to complacency among residents, even forecasters. When a report of a tropical storm disturbance reached Galveston's weather bureau on September 4, 1900, it caused no great alarm. Forecasters were certain the hurricane was destined for Florida.
"The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case," Isaac M. Cline, senior Weather Bureau employee present at Galveston wrote in his memoirs. "Showery weather commenced at 8:45 a.m. (on September 8, 1900), but dense clouds and heavy rain were not in evidence."
Just two hours later, Cline received instructions to post storm-warning flags. The primary precursor to the hurricane's arrival was a very high surf. But instead of causing alarm, it drove Galveston residents and vacationers down to the seashore to see the waves. Many welcomed the increasing breezes as a respite from the unseasonably hot weather.
No one was prepared for what came next.
Around 8 p.m. CDT on September 8, 1900, the unnamed hurricane barreled ashore Galveston Island, triggering an enormous surge that would ultimately sweep some 8,000 people to their deaths.
"The storm was by far the most deadly hurricane on record," said Dr. Steve Lyons. "It showed us that water in the form of surge and waves kills, and that wind is typically much less a threat to death."
The low-lying, three-mile-wide island offered no protection from a hurricane of such size and power. Residents were trapped, helplessly along the 30-mile long stretch of sand, with nowhere to run. Not a single plot of land rose higher than nine feet, in most cases the terrain barely exceeded five feet above mean high tide.
"Although the hurricane struck as a BIG surprise to residents, by the time they realized evacuation was necessary, the evacuation roads off the island were impassable," said Lyons.
By the time the eye of the hurricane hit just west of Galveston Island, winds had already reached 135 mph, a Category 4 hurricane. A lethal combination of wind, surge, and waves leveled house, after house, after house well into the next morning. Terrified islanders strapped themselves together with ropes; others fought for their life by clinging for hours to floating debris.
By the time the hurricane died down, nearly one-fifth of the island's population had been wiped out.