Erik Larson on 100 year anniversary of the Galveston hurricane

September 8, 2000
Posted at: 10:25 a.m. EDT

(CNN) -- September 8 marked the 100th anniversary of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. A Category 4 hurricane swept over Galveston, Texas, one century ago, killing 8,000 men, women and children and destroying nearly three-quarters of the island city. The city is dedicating a memorial to the victims and survivors on September 9 as part of the commemoration of this tragic event.

Growing up in Freeport, Long Island, during the peak hurricane years of the late 1950s and 1960s, Erik Larson survived a major hurricane and several smaller ones. He considers himself a foul weather junkie. He has written previous books and articles, taught nonfiction writing, and has spoken coast-to-coast.

Chat Moderator: Welcome to the CNN chat room, Erik Larson.

Erik Larson: Well, hello, everybody.

Chat Moderator: What is the mood like in Galveston today, the centennial of the hurricane?

Erik Larson: The mood is very upbeat. What's interesting about the centennial is that really, for the first time, it seems as if Galveston is coming to terms with the magnitude of the disaster of 100 years ago.

At the 50th anniversary, there was very little attention paid to the anniversary of the worst natural disaster in American history. That lack, at the 50th anniversary, represented, I think, a difficulty that the city had in dealing with the major blow to its future that the storm caused.

But now, at the 100th anniversary, things are looking up in Galveston. There are a lot of new developments and restoration of old buildings. It may be that the city now feels that it's time to put the storm behind us.

Tomorrow, the city will dedicate the first real statue or marker to commemorate the storm deaths. That's interesting, considering that Texas is a place that will produce a giant monument at the drop of a hat.

Chat Moderator: Given the tools and knowledge that the weather bureau had at the time, could the Galveston disaster have been averted?

Erik Larson: There are two ways to answer that.

Yes, there were tools that would have let Galveston know the storm was coming, if they'd been used properly. But that's a different issue, because we don't know that the city would have evacuated, had they known, for instance. We're dealing with the year 1900, a city that was very prideful -- arrogant, in a way. Whether anyone would have actually left, if given warning, is unclear.

Question from Webguy: Do you feel Isaac Cline was personally responsible for the lack of evacuation?

Erik Larson: No. There are some readers who seem to think that Isaac Cline was some kind of villain. He certainly was not. I simply present a more nuanced look at the real story of Isaac Cline.

Isaac Cline was a creature of his times. He embodied the hubris of his times and, in many ways, was a victim of the storm, not just in material ways -- loss of a family member, and damage to the town -- but also in metaphoric terms.

Isaac was the man who believed he knew all there was to know about weather and, when the storm struck, learned in a very cruel way that he was wrong. Had he used the tools at his disposal, and his own knowledge, had everything worked for him the day before the storm, it is possible that he could have made it clear that this storm was coming.

But, again, whether anyone would have heeded his warning is not at all clear.

Question from Gator: How good is our weather history? Around 150 years ago, what is now downtown Tampa was under 15 feet of water from a hurricane's storm surge, like Galveston. Are there any other similar examples?

Erik Larson: One of the most interesting examples of a storm surge was a storm surge on Lake Okachobi in Florida, when a hurricane storm surge raised on the lake killed 1200 people.

Chat Moderator: Why were Cline’s warnings so ambivalent, even as the storm was racing directly toward Galveston?

Erik Larson: Not clear. Isaac knew a lot about storms. He had studied storms in weather school but, somehow, had come to believe that no hurricane could do serious damage to Galveston. He had written, in fact, that anyone who believed otherwise was the victim of what he called an "absurd delusion."

So, he began with this belief, and expressed the arrogance of his times. This predisposition contributed to the sequence of errors throughout the weather bureau establishment that contributed to this disaster.

Question from TexasDoc: Mr. Larson, many people outside the state of Texas have no idea this catastrophe ever happened. What sparked you to write about this?

Erik Larson: You are quite right. Outside Texas, at least until my book came along, this storm was virtually unknown. In fact, I stumbled upon it by accident.

[Lowery: What a jackass. A yankee who thinks that the 1900 storm which killed thousands of people is virtually unknown. I guess his research didn't include the dozens of other, and better, books about it.]

I was working on a very different book, involving a murder in New York, when I happened to come across an article in the old New York Journal about the hurricane.

I consider myself a hostile weather junkie. I grew up on Long Island at the northern cusp of the hurricane belt and considered myself pretty knowledgeable about hurricanes. So, the storm instantly hooked me.

Question from Heehee: How high above sea level is Galveston?

Erik Larson: Galveston, in 1900, was a very shallow place. High ground in 1900 was 8.7 feet.

Today, the topography is very different. After the storm, Galveston built a seawall. The wall is 18 feet high at the shoreline.

But engineers realized early in the 20th century that a seawall alone would not provide adequate protection. They realized the land behind the seawall would have to be raised. The city then began another little-known, yet amazing engineering project, which at the time was considered one of the wonders of the world.

The city raised its elevation to the level of the seawall, 18 feet, tapering off to about 8 feet, in one case raising an entire cathedral with hand jacks and filling in the earth underneath. So today, a visitor to Galveston gets a very different sense of the island's relationship to the sea than a visitor would have had in 1900.

Question from AlanB: What became of the train that approached from the Bolivar Peninsula?

Erik Larson: The train that approached from the Bolivar Peninsula was destroyed, and 85 people died. The few who escaped the train had made their way to a lighthouse and endured the remainder of the storm inside.

Chat Moderator: Could this type of storm happen again, not just in Galveston, but in any hurricane-prone region?

Erik Larson: Yes. I was surprised to find that the nation's leading hurricane experts all believe that it is still possible for a hurricane to kill hundreds and possibly thousands of people.

The head of the hurricane research division, Hugh Willoughby, told me that hurricanologists can predict the behavior of storms if those storms behave predictably. What he fears, and what his colleagues fear, is a storm that behaves, as he put it, pathologically.

A storm can do surprising things in the 24 hours before landfall. If a storm were to suddenly intensify and gain forward speed and strike head-on in a major metropolitan area like downtown New Orleans, or downtown Miami, a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions could result.

Question from Aurora: How far inland did the surge of the Great 1900 Storm reach?

Erik Larson: It's hard to say, for sure. North of Galveston, there is Galveston Bay. The surge flowed into the bay, and the bay extends another 30 miles to the northeast.

The storm surge did continue onto the Texas mainland and did extensive damage in the Texas prairie that stretched north toward Houston. Exactly how far the surge reached is not clear.

Question from Jimec: What became of the "strange child" that Joseph rescued from the water? Was she saved along with the rest of the girls?

Erik Larson: An excellent question. When I wrote that passage, I assumed that readers would naturally believe or understand that the Cline brothers would not simply throw this child back. In fact, the child did survive the storm and, through a remarkable coincidence, was reunited with her father.

Question from Tider: Is it possible that Galveston would have become the largest city in Texas, and a major metropolitan area, if not for the hurricane?

Erik Larson: Hard to say. What is clear is that in 1900 Galveston was growing fast, had already become the number one cotton port on the Gulf Coast, and was already being referred to as "the New York of the Gulf."

In 1900, 45 steamship lines served Galveston. Twenty-six foreign governments had consulates there. The storm damaged its reputation as a safe place for substantial investment by railroads then seeking to dominate various trans-continental routes.

Galveston's aspirations, while not immediately destroyed, ultimately eroded. The city lost its race with Houston, to the north, for dominance of the gulf.

Whether Galveston would have become what Houston is today would have depended on a lot of other factors. But, clearly, the storm robbed the city of its momentum, and did so at a critical time.

Chat Moderator: How much guesswork is still involved in weather forecasting?

Erik Larson: Guesswork is a vague term. Nobody really guesses at the weather these days. Weathermen use computers and computer modeling to arrive at reasonable estimates of what is likely to happen in the atmosphere.

In some parts of the country, they are correct more often than in others. For example, in Seattle, where I live, weather reports are routinely wrong. This is partly because, even in this day and age, there is very little reliable daily data on weather conditions at sea.

In the continental United States, such routine data is still often collected through the launch of weather balloons carrying instruments. One of the most important tools to a forecaster is knowing what the weather was in an adjacent area the day before.

As for hurricanes, in fact, researchers know very little about how to predict whether a storm will intensify or not. With models and reconnaissance, however, they have become quite adept at estimating the likely track of a storm.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Erik Larson.

Erik Larson: Thank you! Goodbye, and it's raining in Galveston!

Erik Larson joined the chat by telephone from Galveston, Texas. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of that chat, which took place on Friday, September 8, 2000.

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RELATED SITES:

CNN Specials - The Galvestine Hurricanes
Erik Larson's Biography
The 1900 Storm: Galvestine, Texas
The 1900 Storm from the Galveston County Daily News
Tales of the storm from the National Weather Service
Galveston Historical Foundation
Rosenberg Library: Galveston & Texas History Center
Random House books: Isaac's Storm
Weatherwise Magazine: The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900
KHOU-TV: Voices from the Storm, the 1900 Galveston Hurricane