The Storm of the Century: Al Roker's New Book Explores the Hurricane of 1900

In 1900, a huge hurricane tore through Galveston, Texas. It would come to be known as "The Great Storm."

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Aug 30 2015, 4:30pm

Al Roker. Photo by Eric Ray Davidson, courtesy of NBC

On September 8, 1900, a hurricane swept over Galveston, Texas and all but leveled the city. The island's 38,000 residents weren't expecting a storm, but it didn't exactly come out of nowhere. Cuban meteorologists had accurately tracked a tropical cyclone through the Caribbean, and projected that it would cross the Gulf of Mexico and strike the Coastal Bend of Texas. But U.S. Weather Bureau chief Willis Moore dismissed their findings, refusing to allow a storm warning to be issued even by his star weatherman Isaac Cline, who happened to be stationed in Galveston.

So nobody left. It was just another Saturday at the beach until the city began to flood. Cline issued a warning around noon, but by then the water had already risen several feet. The next morning, 6,000 to 10,000 people were dead, whipped by 145 mph winds and drowned under a 15-foot storm surge. Any structure near the beach was uprooted and splintered into a great pile of debris that mowed across the island, tangled with corpses, horses, chickens, and dogs. Everything was underwater. Galveston is a 27-mile long sandbar two miles off the coast. At the storm's peak, it was under the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricanes didn't have names or classifications in 1900, but this would have been a Category 4. On the island, its name is the "1900 Storm," or "The Great Storm." It was a Cape Verde-type hurricane that formed off the coast of West Africa, gathering strength in the Atlantic before cutting a path through the Caribbean and blowing into Galveston. In Washington, Moore was convinced the storm would instead loop back towards the Florida Keys and ride up the East Coast. Its actual route would forever change the course of the South, so much so that NBC weatherman Al Roker has made the storm the subject of his new book, The Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America's Deadliest Natural Disaster: The Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900.

Galveston was the South's most metropolitan city, one of its largest cotton ports, and home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the country. All of Texas was growing in 1900, but Galveston was the center of trade, and was known as "The Wall Street Of The South." The hurricane choked the island overnight, knocking out the only bridge and covering the island in a thick black slime. Communications went quiet. One newspaper labeled Galveston "missing."

Recovery had commenced, though, and The Galveston Daily News was able to print an emergency edition with a list of the dead. Corpses were carted to a warehouse down by the wharves, but the number of dead was overwhelming. Martial law was declared, and black citizens were rounded up at gunpoint and drafted into "dead gangs" to comb the island for bodies and pile them onto barges. The dead were weighted and dumped 18 miles out to sea, but washed back up on the beaches the same day. Once it became apparent that the corpses would have to be burned to contain the spread of disease, great funeral pyres were lit all over the island, and everyone was drafted into cleanup. Galveston's workforce was thus integrated, and allowed a break every half hour for whiskey. Fires burned on the island for months.

Aid came to Galveston from all over the world. The reporter Winifred Black went and covered the tragedy for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper empire, and Hearst's rival Joseph Pulitzer arranged to send 78 year-old Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, to head up relief efforts. Barton would end up staying for two months, tending to a village of white tents on the same beach where the storm made landfall. She said later it was the worst disaster she'd ever seen.

The same devastation would have happened as far as physical devastation, but could more lives have been saved? Absolutely.

Galveston built a Seawall in the years after, jacking up thousands of buildings onto stilts and dredging mud from the bay to raise the island. Seawall Boulevard rose 17 feet over the gulf, and when another hurricane hit in 1915, islanders watched the storm from inside The Galvez Hotel. Galveston finally had its high ground.

But the Oleander City never regained its glory. Development was scared inland, shipping lanes stretched deeper into Galveston Bay, and Houston grew into the fourth largest city in the country. The island remains under the shadow of the storm.

Like post-Katrina New Orleans, Galveston is still vulnerable. The Seawall spans less than half of the island, most of which is low-lying marshland. The prairies out on the West End, where I grew up, will eventually sink.

Until that happens, Galvestonians will stay put. Riding out storms has been built into the culture for a century. Hurricane Ike proved that again in 2008, when a fresh row of beachfront houses were washed away. The next storm will take another row, the coastline will continue to erode, and people will rebuild.

Roker's title, The Storm Of The Century, is an accurate one. There have been bigger storms than the 1900 Storm, but none as catastrophic. Roker spoke with me about his book, the politics of storms, Prince, and Hurricane Trump.

VICE: I've read every book on this storm and was thinking there wasn't anything else to say but you found stuff!
Al Roker: Well, to me, the seminal book is Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm. It was brilliant. I'm such a huge fan of his. I was thinking about writing a book about Katrina—this is a little more than a year ago—and then you start going back to compare stuff. I was researching the 1900 Hurricane, and I remember being in Galveston in 2008 for Ike, and—look, I'm no research genius, so I hired this guy Bill Hoagland, and I said, "See what you can find. I'm just curious." And he came back with this sheath of stuff and I was like, "These stories, these people... it's almost like they were created." There have been two comments that I keep getting from people: A) this should be a movie, and B) did you make these people up or make composites? And I said,"No! These were all real people."

Ten years after Katrina, we tend to think of that as the most political hurricane because of what happened afterwards, but really 1900 was the most political storm before it ever made landfall.
Absolutely. You talk about parallels, you've got Cuba, [where] the foremost authorities on [the storm were]—and by the way, they got the forecast, track, and all of that correct—but they couldn't get it out because Washington didn't trust Cuba. They didn't want to listen to Cuba, felt superior to Cuba, and swore them offtelegraphically—technologically, really, because that was the technology of the day—and the forecast never got out. The same devastation would have happened as far as physical devastation, but could more lives have been saved? Absolutely.

Then we have another parallel where Willis Moore puts a moratorium on the use of the words"hurricane" and "cyclone," and a hundred years later in Florida you can't say "climate change."
Yeah! And look—you've got the man of the day, Isaac Cline, who believed, "We don't get hurricanes because there's this curve," and the city fathers wanted to build a Seawall! Had that Seawall been up, it would have been a different story.

But why didn't they think a hurricane could cross the Gulf from Cuba? It had happened before, even in Galveston.
It had, but they were always able to weather it. The reason was, a storm of a certain magnitude has its own curve, if you will, its own almost gravitational pull. So if it was going to be that strong, it was going to curve and move away. Because one like that had not happened in memory since that area was populated. You have to remember: a hundred years earlier, Jean Laffite the pirate is using [Galveston] as a base.

And he torched the island when he left! Do you think our modern awareness of hurricanes came from 1900?
I think it's one of these things that's cumulative. The 1900 Hurricane, The 1935 Hurricane, Hurricane Camille...

Carla.
Carla. You go down the list of these iconic, destructive storms, and then there's kind of a lull, and then in 2005, when Katrina and Rita and Wilma... that litany of storms just battered the Gulf Coast and East Coast. And then there's a lull, and you get 2008, and we had Ike just batter Galveston. Water comes over the Seawall, it's crazy. And then it's quiet again, and then you get Irene, and then you get Sandy, and you get a number of other storms, and you get a blizzard. All in the same season. So for each generation, there's going to be those storms that are iconic, and people will tell their children about them.

People are fed up with Washington, and then they wonder why Donald Trump is doing well. I'm not endorsing Donald Trump, trust me, but people are gravitating toward him because he speaks his mind.

Then you have what happened with Irene, "Okay, well that one didn't do any damage, so Sandy can't possibly do any damage." But hurricanes aren't related.
We are very narcissistic when it comes to our weather. "If it didn't hit me, then it didn't happen." But the fact is, Irene decimated Eastern Long Island, a good part of Connecticut, and interior sections of New England. There are still places that haven't recovered. Because it didn't hit New York City, people go, "Oh, it was a miss!" No, it wasn't! Maybe for New York it was, but for a good portion of New England, this thing kicked people's asses.

Especially when people feel most threatened by the wind, but it's the flooding that kills, and Irene brought tremendous flooding.
Exactly, and it's like this catch-22. People think because it hasn't happened to them, or because the forecastmissed it, "I'm gonna stay." And then they stay, and something happens, and they die because they're caught in the storm surge. It's crazy.

Over the last couple decades, as the weather's become more politicized, has it changed what you do at all?
No. It doesn't change anything I do. That's why God created more than one channel. You don't like what I'm saying, go somewhere else. Weather's not political. The environment is the one leveler. It doesn't care whether you're black, white, Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, male, female—it doesn't care. It doesn't care! Unfortunately, you look at Katrina, and the areas where people who don't have a voice live in the areas that have lagged in coming back. And that's unfortunate. That's where it's not the weather itself. You see the disparities in the aftermath.

In Galveston we built the Seawall and raised the island and Ike still tore it up, in New Orleans they're not quite ready for another Katrina. Is New York prepared for another Sandy?
Yeah, they're trying to harden the subway tunnels. If there's any good out of Sandy—and it was horrific, and could have been 10 times worse had it come a little further north and stayed its original strength—we realized justhow vulnerable we are, and now have to make the infrastructure investments to take care of that.

Do you see Galveston sinking in 50 or 100 years?
Well, look, just from sea level rise, they're going to have to deal with it. Things are going to have to be addressed. Things are changing. The sad part is, you talk about the politicization of this—on my Wake Up With Al show on The Weather Channel, we had the pollster Frank Luntz, who's by and large recognized as a Republican pollster. But what I value from him is that he's pretty honest with the data. He did polling about climate change—the environment—and when you talk about the environment, everybody was on board. Everybody was like, "We gotta make changes, we gotta take care of stuff." The moment you labeled the same question inserting "climate change" instead of "the environment," all of the sudden it went down party lines. And that's the big problem. People want it. I don't think the politicians realize that. They wantstewardship of their environment, and want solutions. If anything, the weather is a bellwether—no pun intended—for politicians about what they should be doing for their constituents. The constituents want their politicians to take action. And by its very nature now, nothing is happening in Congress, or the Senate. People are fed up with Washington, and then they wonder why Donald Trump is doing well. Now, I'm not endorsing Donald Trump, trust me—I'm going to make that perfectly clear—but people are gravitating toward him because he speaks his mind. He doesn't dance around, and from what they can see he gets stuff done, which is the antithesis of what's happening in Washington now. Whether that can be attained or sustained remains to be seen, but it explains why he has done as well as he's done so far.

Alright, Mr. Weatherman. "Singing In The Rain," "Purple Rain," or "I Can't Stand The Rain?"
How about "Who'll Stop The Rain?" A little Creedence Clearwater? No, I would have to go with Prince. I mean, how do you not go with Prince?

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