10 Most Destructive Storms

The Galveston Storm
People survey the damage caused by the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Bettmann/Getty Images
People survey the damage caused by the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Bettmann/Getty Images

On Sept. 8, 1900, Galveston, Texas, braved a storm of biblical proportions, the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike U.S. territory. The day before it struck, the island city, located just off the Texas coast in the Gulf of Mexico, was a place of 37,000 people and bright economic prospects; the next day, its population had dropped to 31,000, and the city had sustained millions of dollars in damage [source: The 1900 Storm].

A hurricane -- estimated to be a Category 4 -- slammed into the unprotected, low-lying island, bringing with it immense destruction. The consensus among researchers places Galveston death tolls at 8,000 to 10,000 people, with some estimates ranging as low as 6,000 or as high as 12,000. February of the following year saw remains still washing ashore.

The hurricane's 140 mph (225 kph) winds and 15-foot-high (4.5-meter-high) storm surge demolished 3,600 buildings [source: The 1900 Storm]. The whole island was submerged; by the time the waters receded, 12 city blocks -- three-quarters of the city -- had been washed away [source: Zarrella]. In the intervening hours, people struggled to stay alive, clinging to anything they could find above water.

As the citizens rebuilt their town, they tried to provide some protection against future sea-spawned disasters. The townspeople propped up buildings -- in some cases as high as 17 feet (5 meters) above their original elevation -- and raised the grade of the island. They also constructed a seawall 17 feet high and 10 miles (16 kilometers) long, which helped protect the city when another hurricane hit in 1961.

As horrifying as the Galveston storm and its aftermath were to the people of Texas, they were nothing compared to the devastation that struck Central America almost a century later.