~Erik Larson, author of Isaac's Storm.
The hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston killed over 6,000 people (with estimates up to 8,000). The waterlogged sand refused to allow burials, so the residents first forced poor black workers to load up the thousands of bodies onto boats and barges and dump them into the Gulf of Mexico (the quote refers to this situation) . It didn't work, and the bodies floated back to the city. The residents were then forced to burn the bodies.
I know this post seems morbid, but the documentary by The History Channel was excellant. This was actually the deadliest natural disaster in US history - Katrina being the most expensive/most destructive.
The point Madre made: Most people in the 19th century couldn't swim.
The few photos on NOAA's website on the storm are worth the click.
And finally, How different this reporter's writing is from what we are hearing today regarding Katrina:
The story of Galveston's tragedy can never be written as it is. Since the cataclysm of Saturday night a force of faithful men have been struggling to convey to humanity from time to time some of the particulars of the tragedy.
They have told much, but it was impossible for them to tell all, and the world, at best, can never know all, for the thousands of tragedies written by the storm must forever remain mysteries until eternity shall reveal all. Perhaps it were best that it should be so, for the horror and anguish of those fatal and fateful hours were mercifully lost in the screaming tempest and buried forever beneath the raging billows.
Only God knows, and for the rest let it remain forever in the boundlessness of His omniscience.
But in the realm of finity, the weak and staggered senses of mankind may gather fragments of the disaster, and may strive with inevitable incompleteness to convey the merest impression of the saddest story which ever engaged the efforts of a reporter.
- As published Sept. 13, 1900, in The Galveston Daily News