The Storm of 1900, a tropical hurricane that struck Galveston Island on September 8, 1900, and killed between 5,000 and 6,000 people in the city (its population in 1900 was just under 38,000), remains the most deadly disaster in U.S. history. The impact of the hurricane's tidal surge was so destructive that a continuous band five to ten city blocks inward from the beach was declared to be a zone of total destruction. Farther in from shore, the effects of tornadoes generated by the storm extended its deadly force.
The response to this calamity was to reinforce the city with a massive, engineered installation. Three engineers, Brigadier General Henry M. Robert, Alfred Noble, and H. C. Ripley, designed a seawall to fortify the Gulf frontage of the city against future storm surges. This wall, built of reinforced concrete, sixteen to twenty feet wide at its base and three to five feet wide at its summit, is seventeen feet tall. It has subsequently been extended to twice its original length. The engineers also proposed that the topography of the city be reshaped to produce a continuous downward slope from the seawall toward Galveston Bay. The extraordinary engineering enterprise known as the Grade Raising was constructed in phases between 1904 and 1910. It required that temporary canals be cut through the city so that barges could pump silt from the Gulf of Mexico into low-lying areas and reshape the city's surface. Vegetation that survived the Storm of 1900 was sacrificed. In addition, property owners were assessed to pay for the raising of their improvements to newly established grade levels. Older load-bearing brick buildings had to be laboriously raised by hand.
Atop the Seawall a corniche, Seawall Boulevard, was constructed. Along it, Galveston's urban resort economy took shape, a process that began in the 1880s and reached its apogee in the 1930s. Hurricane Carla in 1961 finished off the most extravagant seaside piers, multilevel urban amusement arcades that stretched out into the Gulf on wood pilings.