HOUSTON - There have been only two category 4 hurricanes in Galveston's recorded history and the first hit while the island was at its prime. It was also at its weakest. Thousands of homes were built thanks to a boom in the economy. The only problem is that they were built at sea level. There was no seawall to protect them and no weather advisories to warn them. The Great Hurricane of 1900 hit before the era of weather satellites and reliable ship-to-shore reports so the city was completely blindsided. Cuba warned our early weather service that a hurricane was coming, but US officials chose to ignore the warnings, believing it would track away.
At the turn of the last century, census data was severely lacking so estimates are quite broad and equally horrible with between 8,000 and 12,000 dying. This loss of life happened in just a few hours. Most drowned from the 18 feet of storm surge. This event is still considered the worst natural disaster to ever strike the USA, in terms of loss of life.
Galveston did rebuild in an incredible comeback but most big businesses moved out and stayed out, seeking refuge inland to Houston. It was believed that tropical systems would have less detrimental impact up the Bay, as opposed to right on the water.
Had the 1900 hurricane not struck (and a later category 4 hurricane just 15 years later), Galveston could have easily become the Manhattan Island of the south. While it is believed in 1915, the newly completed seawall and other efforts to fend off storm surge sea water, saved Galveston during that second big hurricane, it only confirmed the barrier island would not become a business center.
Big hurricanes made Houston what it is today.
While economically, Galveston is a shadow of what it could have been, in a visual sense it's probably more beautiful and peaceful than it ever would have been as a big city.