One hundred years ago a weatherman named Isaac Cline was the chief meteorologist in Galveston, Texas. He made history by confidently announcing that no hurricane would ever seriously hurt the city, and that to believe otherwise was to entertain an absurd delusion.
Early on the morning of Saturday, September 8, 1900, Cline was down by the beach timing the arrival of deep-ocean swells larger than any he'd ever seen. He did not know what it meant, but he knew that something extraordinary seemed about to occur.
Eight thousand people were about to die needlessly, but he did not know what the signs meant. The official forecast called for rain followed by clearing.
One person recalled later that the sky that morning had been "gloriously pink, yet containing a fish-scale effect which reflected all of the colors of the rainbow. Never had I seen such a beautiful sky."
Cline was bothered by the swells. Normally the Gulf was placid. That was why the streetcar trestle snaked over the surf and why they'd built Victorian style bathhouses on stilts well into the sea.
Cline went back to the office and checked his instruments. The barometric pressure had dropped a bit, but not alarmingly.
A telegram was waiting for him from the central weather office telling him to hoist a storm flag. But such warnings were routine; there was still no cause for alarm. It was the ocean swells that had him concerned. He didn't know what they meant.
He returned to the beach and again timed the swells. They were heavier now and pushing seawater well into the neighborhoods nearest the beach. He returned to his office and sent his own telegram stating, "Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously."
Captain George Hix stopped by the weather station to discuss the strange weather. One of Cline's colleagues said there was no cause for uneasiness. It was just a harmless off-spur of a storm that had struck Florida a few days ago. "Well, young man," Hix snorted, "it's going to be the damnedest off-spur you ever saw."
But Captain Hix was alone in his anxiety. The rest of the city, adults and children, converged on the beach with delight in their bathing suits. The surf, rocketing off the streetcar trestle, was as good as any fireworks. They were in grave danger, but didn't know it. They were as happy as could be, down by the water. They did not have the information they needed.
"As we watched from the porch," one woman wrote of her childhood experiences, "we were amazed and delighted to see the water from the Gulf flowing down the street. Good, we thought, there would be no need to walk the few blocks to play at the beach; it was right at our front gate."
Suddenly things changed...
It was wonderful, right up until the waves began tearing apart the bathhouses and the shops of the Midway. "Suddenly," one mother recalled, "it wasn't fun anymore." You can almost imagine their expressions changing from cheerfulness, to pure fear.
A visiting businessman took shelter in a train station. For him the inconvenience was made poignant when the body of a child floated into the station.
Abruptly the telegraph lines fell. Cline had had it. He went home. He had a big house on stilts five blocks from the beach. He'd just ride out the storm with his wife and three daughters. When he arrived home, over 50 people were inside. They figured that his house would be the safest.
The surge slowly overflowed the wharf along the north end of the city and began filling the streets of the business district. As the wind shifted, the Gulf suddenly sprang forward as if propelled by an uncoiling spring. A dome of water over 20 feet high surged ashore under rapidly escalating winds. The waters of the sea and the bay met over the city and turned rooftops into small islands.
No one knows what velocity the wind reached. The bureau's anemometer tore away at 100 miles per hour. The wind sliced off the top floor of a bank, leaving the rest of the building intact. It stripped slate shingles from a house and turned them into scimitars that disembowelled men where they stood. The atmospheric pressure fell so low that a British cotton official was sucked from his apartment window as if he had been up in an airplane when a bomb went off. The storm surge drowned an entire train and demolished an orphanage killing 90 children. Whole neighborhoods were scoured from the face of the earth.
At 6:30 p.m., Cline, ever the weatherman, opened his door to take a look outside. Where once there were streets, there was now open ocean. He didn't see any waves, though, because the storm surge had erected an escarpment of wreckage three stories tall and several miles long that acted as a kind of seawall. It contained carriages, furniture, the streetcar trestle and rooftops that bobbed like the hulls of dismasted ships. It also carried corpses, hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. The wind and sea now pushed this wall toward Cline's house. He heard it coming--a horrendous blend of screams and exploding wood.
Suddenly the sea rose four feet in four seconds. For those inside the Cline house, it was a moment of suspended terror. Four feet was taller than the children. Throughout the remains of the city, parents lifted children onto tables, dressers and pianos. People in single story houses had nowhere to go. The sudden rise of the sea meant death. Suddenly the prospect of watching their children die became very real.
The houses fell gracefully at first. One witness said that the houses collapsed into the Gulf as gently as a mother would lay her infant in a cradle. It was when the current caught the structures and swept them away that the violence occurred, with bedrooms erupting in a tumult of flying wood and glass, rooftops soaring through the air like monstrous kites.
The wall of wreckage pushed before it an immense segment of the streetcar, which struck the Cline house with terrific force. Cline was standing in the center of the living room with his wife and 6-year-old daughter. He was driven backward against the fireplace. He remembered hitting the water and something huge driving him to the bottom. He lost consciousness.
On Sunday, the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington telegraphed Houston, "Do you hear anything from Galveston?" The answer was, "We have been unable to contact Galveston since 4 p.m. yesterday."
Later that day this report was sent in from Houston, "First news from Galveston just received by train, which could get no closer to the bay shore than six miles. Two hundred corpses counted from the train. Large steamship stranded two miles inland..."
When Cline awakened on Sunday afternoon he was overjoyed to discover his three daughters alive and well. But his wife was missing. It would be three weeks before her body was recovered.
Eight thousand people died in a matter of a few hours. This was the largest natural disaster in American history--it dwarfs the San Francisco earthquake and all the other disasters since.
Late in his life, Cline said, "If we had known then what we know now, we would have known...of the storm which these swells told us in unerring language was coming."
If people had only known what was coming, they could have had plenty of time to bundle up their kids and walk to safety.
What this means for today
It's as God warned through the prophet Hosea, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6).
For the lack of knowledge, 8,000 people lost their lives in a dreadful calamity at Galveston on September 8, 1900. Jesus warned that many people will be oblivious to the impending crisis at the end of the age as well (Matthew 24:37-39). Surely, part of the gospel message that Jesus gave to His people to share is aimed at removing the ignorance as to the nature and final result of the great events prophesied to occur before His return.
The ocean swells that Isaac Cline was timing down by the beach foretold accurately an impending great storm. Cline didn't know what it meant. His wife and 8,000 people perished.
God's Word spells out conditions and events that herald the second coming of Jesus Christ. God has promised, "Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7).
One helpful resource that puts these prophecies together in a readable way is the booklet, Are We Living in the Time of the End? This 24-page, magazine-style booklet is available free of charge in the public interest and explains the storms on our world's horizon, and the good news beyond.