We often think of two natural disasters that happened before the current wave of climate change and wonder how devastating their effects would be today. We are referring to the Great Galveston hurricane of 1900 and the 1926 Miami hurricane.
The Great Galveston hurricane of 1900 and the accompanying tidal wave were the deadliest natural disaster in the United States history and the fifth-deadliest Atlantic hurricane overall. That category 4 hurricane left between 6000 and 12,000 fatalities in the United States; the number most cited in official reports is 8000. After viewing the destruction in Galveston, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, made the following statement:
“It was one of those monstrosities of nature which defied exaggeration and fiendishly laughed at all tame attempts of words to picture the scene it had prepared. The churches, the great business houses, the elegant residences of the cultured and opulent, the modest little homes of laborers of a city of nearly forty thousand people; the center of foreign shipping and railroad traffic lay in splinters and debris piled twenty feet above the surface, and the crushed bodies, dead and dying, of nearly ten thousand of its citizens lay under them” .
Note that the number of residents for the metropolitan Houston area, which includes Galveston, was 182,000 in 1900. At that time, the entire state of Texas had 3.055 million residents. In contrast, by 2020, the Houston metro area had 7.154 million inhabitants, making it the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S. The area’s population grew by an astounding rate of 3831% in 120 years, or 31.9% per year. The cataclysmic outcomes of the 1900 storm can be seen in Figs. 1 and 2 . Can one even imagine what the outcomes of storms like that would be in an area that is now 3831% more inhabited than what it was back in 1900? The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states the following about hurricanes:
“Hurricanes start simply with the evaporation of warm seawater, which pumps water into the lower atmosphere. This humid air is then dragged aloft when converging winds collide and turn upwards. At higher altitudes, water vapor starts to condense into clouds and rain, releasing heat that warms the surrounding air, causing it to rise as well. As the air far above the sea rushes upward, even more, warm moist air spirals in from along the surface to replace it. As long as the base of this weather system remains over warm water and its top is not sheared apart by high-altitude winds, it will strengthen and grow. More and more heat and water will be pumped into the air. The pressure at its core will drop further and further, sucking in wind at ever increasing speeds. Over several hours to days, the storm will intensify, finally reaching hurricane status when the winds that swirl around it reach sustained speeds of 74 miles per hour or more” .
Not only has the IPCC concluded that human activity has led to a 0.8–1.2 °C increase in world temperature, but it has also stated the following:
“It is virtually certain that upper ocean (0 to 700 m) heat content increased during the relatively well-sampled 40-year period from 1971 to 2010” .
It is reasonable to think that if hurricanes occur over warm seawater, as seawater warms up globally, the likelihood of hurricanes being formed will likewise increase.
In 2006, we relocated to Miami, and at that time, we moved to an old house, built in 1924, whose claim to fame was the fact that it survived the catastrophic category 4 Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 that devastated the Greater Miami area. According to S. McIver, “the 1926 storm was described by the U.S. Weather Bureau in Miami as ‘probably the most destructive hurricane ever to strike the United States.’ It hit Fort Lauderdale, Dania, Hollywood, Hallandale, and Miami. The death toll is estimated to be from 325 to perhaps as many as 800. No storm in previous history had done as much property damage” . Note that in 1926 Miami-Dade County had approximately 100,000 inhabitants; in 2021 that number was estimated to be 2,721,110. This represents a staggering population growth of 2621% in 95 years, or 25.6% per year—in a low-laying warm coastal location that is directly subjected to the effects of potentially calamitous hurricanes. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 was estimated to have caused damage of US$105 million in 1926 U.S. dollars. Weinkle and colleagues estimated that a similar storm would have caused economic losses of US$236 billion in 2017 .