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America’s Deadliest Disaster

A 14-year-old makes a heroic rescue in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

By Lauren Tarshis
From the September 2018 Issue

Students will examine how the author uses descriptive details to help readers understand what a terrible disaster was like. They will write their own narratives using descriptive details.

Lexile: 780L, 650L
Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

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UP CLOSE: Descriptive Details

In this article, the author includes many details to make the story come alive. Pay attention to this as you read.

Courtesy of Peter Flagg Masson

Galveston, Texas, was drowning. 

It was September 8, 1900, and the city was being torn to pieces by a brutal hurricane. Thousands of people were dead.

And in the middle of the terror was 14-year-old Harry Maxson. 

He stood at the window of his house. Outside, the wild, churning ocean was like a furious beast devouring his neighborhood. It was swallowing up trees and barns, tearing apart houses and carrying them away. Harry’s ears pounded with the sounds of the screaming wind and of flying bricks and chunks of shattered wood smashing against the walls of his family’s home.  

Bam! Bam!

And then Harry heard another sound, a desperate cry rising up over the wind. 

“Help me!”

It was a woman, calling from somewhere outside. 

Harry wanted to turn away—he could barely swim. How could he possibly help anyone caught in that storm?

“Please! Come and save us!” the woman cried.  

Her words seemed to grab hold of Harry’s heart. 

Harry took a breath, gathering his courage. 

He had to try to save that woman . . . even if it cost him his life.  

Galveston, Texas, was drowning.

It was September 8, 1900, and the city was being torn to pieces by a hurricane. Thousands of people were dead.

And in the middle of it all was Harry Maxson, 14.

He stood at the window of his house. Outside, the wild, churning ocean was like a furious beast devouring his neighborhood. It swallowed up trees and barns. It tore apart houses and carried them away. Harry listened to the screaming wind. He heard flying bricks and chunks of wood smashing against his family’s home.

Bam! Bam!

And then Harry heard something else: a desperate cry.

“Help me!”

It was a woman, calling from somewhere outside.

Harry wanted to turn away. He could barely swim. How could he help anyone caught in that storm?

“Please! Come and save us!” the woman cried.

Her words seemed to grab hold of Harry’s heart. He took a breath, gathering his courage.

He had to try to save that woman, even if it cost him his life.

Library of Congress

A Glittering City

Before the storm, Galveston was one of the liveliest and most glamorous cities in the country, famous for its fine restaurants, elegant concert halls, and picture-perfect beaches. Some called it “the New York City of the Gulf.”

A Changing World

As a kid living in Galveston, Harry had every reason to feel blessed. He had a happy family and plenty of friends. He was an athletic kid, big and fast. He even had a summer job at the railroad station, which paid 16 cents an hour—not bad for 1900. 

And what a time it was in America! New inventions and fresh ideas were transforming lives all across the country, especially in cities like Galveston. 

The rooms of Harry’s family’s elegant house were lit by modern electric lights. Harry and his pals zipped through the city on clanging streetcars. Harry could borrow books from Galveston’s public library, the first in Texas. 

Cities all across America were booming. But few had grown as quickly as Galveston. Perched on an island off the southern coast of Texas, Galveston had been founded in the 1830s. By 1900, it was Texas’s richest and most important city. Every day, ships loaded up with American cotton and wheat steamed from Galveston to countries around the world. Arriving ships were crowded with immigrants—people coming to America to start new lives. 

And imagine what those newcomers saw as they came ashore. There were the white sand beaches and elegant mansions built by Galveston’s millionaires. Gardens spilled over with sweet-smelling flowered plants called oleanders. The streets, paved with crushed oyster shells, sparkled like they’d been sprinkled with diamonds. 

True, this glittering city was prone to flooding. It was sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay. During big storms, water rose up from both the Gulf and the Bay, turning city streets into rushing streams. This is what was happening on the rainy and windy morning of September 8, when Harry was heading to work at the railroad station. 

But Harry wasn’t worried, and neither were most people in the city. As the winds grew stronger, thousands of people gathered excitedly on the beach to cheer the wildly crashing waves. 

What nobody understood was that this was not just a regular storm. The city was about to be slammed by one of the most powerful forces of nature on Earth: a hurricane. 

Within just hours, most of Galveston would be gone.   

Harry had a good life. He had a happy family and plenty of friends. He was an athletic kid, big and fast. He even had a summer job at the railroad station, which paid 16 cents an hour—not bad for 1900.

And what a time it was in America! New inventions were transforming lives all across the country, especially in cities like Galveston.

The rooms of Harry’s house were lit by modern electric lights. Harry and his pals rode through the city on streetcars. Harry could borrow books from Galveston’s public library, the first one in Texas.

Cities all across America were booming. But few had grown as quickly as Galveston. The city sits on an island off the southern coast of Texas. It was founded in the 1830s. By 1900, it was the richest and most important city in Texas. Every day, ships loaded with American cotton and wheat steamed from Galveston to countries around the world. Arriving ships brought immigrants—people coming to America to start new lives.

And imagine what they saw as they came ashore. There were white sand beaches. There were mansions built by the city’s millionaires. Gardens spilled over with sweet-smelling flowered plants called oleanders [OH-lee-an-durz]. The streets were paved with crushed oyster shells, and they sparkled like they’d been sprinkled with diamonds.

It’s true that the city was prone to flooding. It sat between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay. During big storms, water rose up from both the Gulf and the Bay, turning city streets into rushing streams. This was happening on the morning of September 8, as Harry headed to work at the railroad station.

But Harry wasn’t worried, and neither were most people in the city. As the winds grew stronger, many people gathered on the beach to cheer the big waves.

What no one understood was that this was not just a regular storm. The city was about to be hit by one of the most powerful forces of nature on Earth: a hurricane.

Within hours, most of Galveston would be gone.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

No Escape

For as long as humans have been living on Earth, they have faced extreme weather. And in no place is the weather more extreme than here in America. Frozen blizzards. Fiery heat waves. Wildfires. Tornadoes. And the most dangerous of all: hurricanes. These massive, swirling storms have killed more people in America than any other natural disaster.

Hurricanes form over oceans and can explode to shore with as much energy as 10,000 nuclear bombs. A powerful hurricane can pack winds of more than 180 miles per hour—strong enough to shatter buildings and lift trains off tracks. Trillions of gallons of rain can fall.

But the most devastating part of a hurricane is the “storm surge.” This is the flood of ocean water, pushed by hurricane winds, that can swallow entire cities.

Cities like Galveston.

In the days leading up to the Galveston hurricane, the U.S. weather bureau knew a bad storm was swirling in the Caribbean. The storm was heading north, toward the U.S. But there was no way of knowing where it would hit. Back in 1900, the science of weather—meteorology—was still young. Weather scientists lacked knowledge and tools that could enable them to track storms. Not surprisingly, most of their predictions were wrong. Just a few years before, one respected weather forecaster had written that the idea of a hurricane striking Galveston was “absurd.”

This is why the people of Galveston had no idea that a powerful hurricane was barreling toward their city—until it was too late.

For as long as humans have lived on Earth, they have faced extreme weather. And in no place is the weather more extreme than here in America. Frozen blizzards. Fiery heat waves. Wildfires. Tornadoes. And the most dangerous of all: hurricanes. These huge storms have killed more people in America than any other natural disaster.

Hurricanes form over oceans and can explode to shore with as much energy as 10,000 nuclear bombs. The winds of a  hurricane can reach more than 180 miles per hour—strong enough to shatter buildings and lift trains off tracks. Trillions of gallons of rain can fall.

But the most damaging part of a hurricane is the “storm surge.” This is the flood of ocean water, pushed by hurricane winds, that can swallow whole cities.

Cities like Galveston.

In the days leading up to the Galveston hurricane, the U.S. weather bureau knew a bad storm was swirling in the Caribbean. The storm was heading north, toward the U.S. But there was no way to know where it would hit. Back in 1900, the science of weather—meteorology—was still new. Weather scientists lacked knowledge and tools that could help them track storms. Most of their predictions were wrong. Just a few years before, one respected weather forecaster had written that the idea of a hurricane hitting Galveston was “absurd.”

This is why the people of Galveston had no idea that a powerful hurricane was headed for their city—until it was too late.

G-9125.2, Galveston Photographic Subject Files: Parades.

A Raging Sea

Harry left work at 4 p.m. and ran home through the flooded streets. He dodged flying roof tiles and branches. He watched in horror as the wind tore the entire roof off a house and carried it through the air. 

He came home to discover that his house, the biggest and best-built in the neighborhood, was crowded with terrified neighbors. His mother had opened their doors to anyone in need. His father finally arrived home from work wearing his new raincoat, which had been shredded by the wind. 

As the hours passed, hundreds of houses and buildings were destroyed and sucked down to the beach. A 30-foot-high wall made of broken buildings and furniture and beds and carriages stretched across the beach for miles. For a time, this wall of wreckage actually helped protect the city from the furious ocean waves. 

But then, around 7:30, the winds shifted. And the storm surge—a wall of water 15 feet high—came rushing in from the Gulf. In minutes, the entire city was transformed into a raging sea, filled with debris. Houses, schools, and churches crumbled. Telephone poles flew like spears. Parents turned mattresses into rafts and tried to save their children. 

By midnight, Harry’s was the only house in his neighborhood that hadn’t been washed away. “The house was so full, and there was so much worry and distress,” Harry wrote. “There were plenty of people praying on their knees, silently and out loud.”

Harry left work at 4 p.m. He ran home through the flooded streets. He dodged flying roof tiles and branches. He watched in horror as the wind tore the whole roof off a house.

His house was the biggest and best built in the neighborhood. When he got there, it was filled with neighbors. His mother had opened their doors to anyone in need. His father came home from work wearing his new raincoat, which had been shredded by the wind.

As the hours passed, hundreds of houses and buildings were destroyed and sucked down to the beach. A 30-foot-high wall made of broken buildings and furniture and beds and carriages stretched across the beach for miles. For a time, this wall actually helped protect the city from the huge ocean waves.

But then, around 7:30, the winds shifted. And the storm surge—a wall of water 15 feet high—came rushing in from the Gulf. In minutes, the city became a raging sea filled with debris. Houses, schools, and churches crumbled. Telephone poles flew like spears. Parents used mattresses as rafts and tried to save their children.

By midnight, Harry’s house was the only one in his neighborhood that was still standing. “The house was so full, and there was so much worry and distress,” Harry wrote. “There were plenty of people praying on their knees, silently and out loud.”

Library of Congress

Torn to Pieces

The day after the storm, survivors crawled out of shelter to find a scene of total ruin. The city’s grand homes and buildings had been toppled over, ripped to splinters, or completely wiped away.

Daring Rescue

Harry’s father told Harry to go into the kitchen, open the window a crack, and listen for voices of people needing help. 

That’s when Harry heard the woman calling. 

“Something had to be done,” Harry wrote. “I decided to get some good swimmers and go out and rescue her.” 

He told his father his plan but not his mother—he didn’t want to worry her. And then he and a neighbor set out into the churning water. They floated on a downed telephone pole and rode the wild waves, following the sound of the woman’s screaming voice. 

They finally found her standing on top of the roof of a house. Inside the house were 36 people, including 13 children and babies. 

The house was floating in the water. The wind was ripping it to pieces. Soon it would be torn apart and carried away. 

Over the next hour, Harry and his neighbor managed to lead these terrified survivors through the raging waters and back to Harry’s house. They made two trips, back and forth until everyone was safe. 

His mother welcomed all of them with hot coffee and fresh biscuits. 

By 1:30 a.m., there were 140 people at Harry’s house, plus dogs, cats, and birds. People huddled together, crying, praying, waiting for their city to be freed from the hurricane’s devouring jaws. 

Harry’s father told Harry to go into the kitchen, open the window a crack, and listen for voices of people needing help.

That’s when Harry heard the woman calling.

“Something had to be done,” Harry wrote. “I decided to get some good swimmers and go out and rescue her.”

He told his father what he planned to do. Then he and a neighbor set out into the storm. Floating on a downed telephone pole, they followed the sound of the woman’s voice.

They found her standing on the roof of a house. Inside the house were 36 people. Thirteen were children and babies.

The house was floating in the water. The wind was ripping it to pieces. Soon it would be torn apart and carried away.

Harry and his neighbor led the people through the waters and back to Harry’s house. They made two trips, back and forth until everyone was safe.

His mother welcomed them with hot coffee and fresh biscuits.

By 1:30 a.m., there were 140 people at Harry’s house, plus dogs, cats, and birds. People cried, prayed, and waited for the storm to end.

Jupiterimages/Getty Images

Galveston Today

This city is now a peaceful vacation spot, far different from the bustling city it once was.

Lucky to Survive

“By Sunday morning the sun was shining,” Harry wrote. “But the water was still three feet deep in the streets. What a wreck it left.”

Galveston had mostly disappeared. For miles around, there was nothing but ruin. Silence hung over the city as dazed survivors searched for their families and friends. Bodies were everywhere. At least 8,000 people were killed—out of a population of just 40,000.

Harry knew how lucky he and his family had been to survive.

It took more than a year for the storm wreckage to be cleared. Bit by bit, the city was rebuilt, and a huge wall was put up to protect it from future storms. Galveston slowly recovered. Today, it is a charming resort city, famous for its beaches. But it would never reclaim its place as the richest and most important city in Texas. The Great Galveston Hurricane, to this day, is the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

As for Harry, he grew up to become a business leader with a family of his own. He died in 1967, at the age of 82.

Harry’s grandson Peter says his grandfather led a happy and successful life. “He was very involved in the community and was a great believer in family,” Peter remembers. But Harry never forgot the 1900 hurricane. “He told his story every Thanksgiving,” Peter says.

“By Sunday morning the sun was shining,” Harry wrote. “But the water was still three feet deep in the streets. What a wreck it left.”

Galveston had mostly disappeared. For miles around, there was nothing but ruin. Silence hung over the city as survivors searched for their families and friends. Bodies were everywhere. At least 8,000 people were killed—in a city of just 40,000.

Harry knew how lucky he and his family had been to survive.

It took more than a year for the storm wreckage to be cleared. Bit by bit, the city was rebuilt. A huge wall was put up to protect it from future storms.

Galveston slowly recovered. Today, it is a charming resort city, known for its beaches. But it would never reclaim its place as the richest and most important city in Texas.

The Great Galveston Hurricane, to this day, is the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

Harry grew up to be a business leader with a family of his own. He died in 1967, at the age of 82.

Harry’s grandson Peter says Harry led a happy life. “He was very involved in the community and was a great believer in family,” says Peter.

But Harry never forgot the 1900 hurricane. “He told his story every Thanksgiving,” Peter says.

Harvepino/Shutterstock.com

How Hurricanes Form

Hurricanes are born when strong wind meets tropical ocean water. The wind causes warm, moist air near the water’s surface to rise, forming giant clouds. As more air rises, the clouds grow, and the winds spin faster and faster. When the winds hit 74 miles per hour, the storm is officially a hurricane.

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More About the Story

Skills

descriptive details, vocabulary, key details, inference, main idea and supporting details, cause and effect, text structure, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Purpose

This article introduces readers to the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history: the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. It also recounts the heroic actions of a 14-year-old boy who helped rescue 36 people in the storm.

Structure

The text is nonlinear, with narrative and informational passages. Photos and a map support comprehension.

Language

The article includes some challenging academic and domain-specific vocabulary. It also contains similes and a rhetorical question.

Knowledge Demands 

Some knowledge of hurricanes and 19th century America will be helpful for comprehension but is not required.

Content-Area Connections

Social studies: history

Science: natural disasters

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary; Watch a Video (40 minutes)

  • Have students open to pages 4-5 and read the headline and subhe