Storms 100 years apart

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

Ma. Isabel Ongpin

It turns out that in 1912, also in the month of November, (November 25) a killer typhoon hit the Philippines barreling in from the Pacific to the east into Tacloban, affecting Leyte, Panay,, Capiz, Cebu and Bohol and even Surigao in Mindanao. There probably was no storm warning because there was a frightful death toll.

The reports come from 1912 newspapers – Washington Herald and Oswego Palladium and their headlines state that 15,000 persons were killed by that 1912 typhoon. Since all telegraph lines were down the news came to the world from ships that were either passing by on their way to somewhere else or happened to be in the vicinity.

Official government documents like the Governor General’s year-end report mention it but only sketchily it seems. This suggests they had no verifiable information regarding the casualty number so neither do we unless someone bothers to do some deep research.

Year-end typhoons lethal
What is interesting is the coincidence that Yolanda and that unnamed 1912 typhoon come in the month of November (with a two-week gap in dates of arrival, set apart by a 101-year gap) which brings us to the instinctive fear that we have had from years of experience that end-of-the-year typhoons are strong and lethal. No need to worry about the 100 years gap, we will not be affected.

A few years ago I went to an extensive exhibit about Catholic nuns in the United States. The first ones came with the French into Louisiana sometime in the early 18th century and have ever since been doing service in education, medical services, and ministering to the poor.

One such group of nuns had an orphanage in Galveston, Texas at the turn of the 20th century (1900) which is an island just off the south of Houston where it was connected to the mainland by a bridge. The orphanage was along the sea because it was considered healthy for children to live by the sea.

Except that in 1900 (Sept 8- 9, to be exact), a Category 4 hurricane slammed into Galveston from Cuba. The orphanage and its orphans with their nuns were killed by a storm surge while the wind was blowing fiercely and their building was shaking— the nuns had tied themselves to the orphans who were tied to each other to be able to keep together and in that way save themselves.

The storm had no name as it was not yet customary to name them as they do today. It is just known to history after the fact as the Great Galveston Hurricane and is considered the deadliest in US history with an estimated death toll of 8,000 (estimates ranged from 6,000 to 12,000).

There was a national weather service but it did not warn the city enough regarding the strength of the storm, which was noted only when it was upon the city. With winds of 145 miles per hour (223 kph) storm surge was the result. I stand corrected because I thought storm surge was a result of climate change that is upon us today.

Galveston was wrecked – 3,500 houses razed to the ground with more than 5-meter high waves pounding buildings out of their foundations. The bridge to the mainland was destroyed, telegraph lines were down; no communication meant no information to the outside until much later.

Corpses thrown to the sea
Many survivors of the hurricane died in the wreckage because they were trapped and no one came on time to help them. There were so many dead, their bodies thrown to the sea with weights so as to avoid decomposition before burial. But the tide brought them back, so they resorted to funeral pyres, plying the distraught burial details that were now assigned to burn bodies, with free whiskey.

The storm blew on to the US Midwest and even reached New York City, though considerably weakened.

Beautiful Galveston, a resort city by the sea, was effectively no more. But in time, years of time not the next day or year, the city was rebuilt district by district under individual commissioners as it was decided that the job was too big for the city council. A sea wall of five meters was constructed; an all-weather bridge to Houston was built. And the city itself was raised by as much as 5.2 meters, a monumental engineering job that merited a memorial plaque.

It went back to normal over the decades until 113 years later in September 13, 2008 a Category 2 hurricane, Ike, hit it at 110 miles per hour (175 kph). This time the National Weather Service now a modern entity was able to warn of the coming storm, the President even before it landed proclaimed a state of emergency and there was mandatory evacuation.

One million people were evacuated to the mainland. But at landfall a wind from the north obstructed the hurricane’s force and in effect shortened the storm surge to 5.8 meters, which still went over the top of the seawall. Some people did not evacuate and of those, 53 died. It was not zero casualties.

Three persons had decided that they would ride out the storm at the pier but when the storm surge started hitting the building they were in, they called for help to be evacuated. It was too dangerous for rescuers and they had to ride out the storm under the most perilous and frightening circumstances but they survived.

Summer hurricanes
Nature is the good and the bad of our universe. We may mitigate it but we cannot completely conquer its tantrums. The people of Tacloban 100 years ago are gone and no one now remembers what the survivors of that 1912 storm experienced because those who were told are gone too. One hundred years leave no memories.

In an anecdotal aside, it is to be noted that the worst hurricanes that hit the US and its neighbors come in September (with the occasional late August, early October storm) and the ones that are deadly in these parts come in October or November. Let us hope that one century passes before we face another super typhoon like Yolanda. In any case, this is not the end of typhoons or hurricanes.


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  1. EXcellent and enlightening column.
    ms. ongpin does our country and our people
    a great service.
    — yen makabenta

  2. Dear Ms. Ongpin,

    I’m not sure about the 100 year cycle. I came across a link in a foreign forum about a similar event in Leyte/Samar in 1898/1899. 7,000 people died in that storm. As recent as the early fifties, Batanes and Cagayan north were hit by a storm that induced a tsunami (a much better term to use for storm surge). The village of Song-Song on Batan island was wiped out, as well some towns and villages on the northern coast of Cagayan.

    While the Philippines is “more fun”, it could also be the most dangerous place on earth. In the last century, (according to a UN stat I saw after Mt. Pinatubo erupted), the country topped the list of the most number of natural disasters, primarily typhoon related. On another list, the most number of natural disasters annually, together with US, China. Among the countries most vulnerable to climate change, the Philippines is also in the top 5, the largest country in that group.

    If you add man-made disasters like the world’s worst maritime peace time disaster courtesy of Sulpicio (shall we call it, Suspicious) lines, the country is terribly disaster prone, like a washing machine on perpetual motion.

    A Buenafe