In 1900, a hurricane surprised the island community of Galveston,
Texas. Wind of more than 135 mph. destroyed more than 3,600 buildings.
Death toll estimates range from 6,000 to 12,000—in a population that at
the time was only 40,000. The 1900 hurricane, according to the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, is officially recorded as the single
deadliest U.S. natural disaster.
Government mistakes and miscommunication likely made its casualties
worse. The 10-year- old U.S. Weather Bureau, which would later become
the National Weather Service, wrongly predicted that the storm would
head north toward New England. Its director had blocked incoming
hurricane information from Cuba because of politics. At the same time, he
instructed local U.S. weather forecasters that they could not issue weather
advisories without approval from Washington first, a tedious task in those
In 1928, a hurricane known as the Great Okeechobee Hurricane—
commemorated in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching
God—struck Florida on September 26, 1928. It ranks as the second-
deadliest U.S. natural disaster behind the Galveston hurricane. It wiped
out entire towns and killed an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people, or half the
population of western Palm Beach County at the time. It caused $16 billion
in property damage in today’s dollars, bringing Florida’s 1920s land-
development boom to a screeching halt and plunging it into depression a
year before the rest of the country.
In more recent times, the death toll from Hurricane Katrina is not known
for certain, but has been reckoned at around 1,800.
So far Hurricane Harvey has been blamed for 31 deaths, while Irma
caused at least 68 deaths in the Caribbean and southeastern U.S.
What lowered the casualty toll so drastically? Experts say that some
fortuitous factors were involved: floods from rain give people more time to
react than Katrina’s tidal storm surges, and the Houston area does not
have as many densely populated poor areas as New Orleans.
The social-media ecosystem is much more advanced than it was even
during Katrina, and was used very effectively by government agencies to
communicate and inform. Texas ports fared better than hoped, reopening
remarkably quickly and allowing vital petroleum supplies to begin moving
Apart from government actions, an array of smartphone apps have also
helped people move smarter, avoiding dangerous areas and gravitating
toward shelters and other areas where food and water were available.
Many say quick restoration of cell-phone service should be a life-saving
priority in future disasters.
But the actions of government anticipators and responders played a
great part in lowering human casualties. It came down to two words:
preparation and communication. As detailed in several stories in this
issue, companies, ports and localities have increased their resilience by
staging supplies, doing extensive drills and performing table-top exercises
informed by data from recent disasters.
Those efforts paid off, and everyone involved deserves thanks and