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The Weatherman Who Couldn't Foresee The Storm


On September 8, 1900, a massive hurricane made a devastating direct hit on Galveston, Texas. Galveston was a major port city on the Gulf of Mexico, shipping tons of cotton out and tons of merchandise in every day. The city was totally destroyed. Thousands of people died. Al Roker of "The Today Show" writes about it in his new book called "Storm Of The Century." It's an account of another famous weatherman, Isaac Cline. Despite his reputation, he did not see this storm coming, and he did not warn Galveston's people in time. And that included his own family. Al Roker described what it was like when Cline's house collapsed and he was thrown into the Gulf.

AL ROKER: When he finally resurfaced, there was nothing, just an angry, roiling, violent ocean with sheets of rain and howling wind. I mean, he had to have been all but blind. It would be as if you put your head under the water in a bathtub and popped your head back up and your bathroom was gone.

WERTHEIMER: I want to ask you to read something of what you wrote about what a ghastly experience this was. The Cline family, their house collapsed around them. They were trapped in the timbers. Then things started to pop above the water. And they realized that they - he realized that he could see and hear two of his children. And they were sitting on these beams, using the beams of their own house as flotation. Now, could you just read - this is on page 192.

ROKER: Yes. (Reading) And even as the Clines were struggling to stay afloat, he saw a monstrous hulk, nearly a whole house, careening towards their modest raft. This huge hazard carried big piles of smaller debris before it. In seconds, it would stove the Cline's raft in, batter them and dump them all in the surf.

WERTHEIMER: But they did survive.

ROKER: They did. And, you know, survival for some was, in a way, maybe even worse than perishing because what they lived to see was a scene of utter devastation, bodies upon bodies piled upon each other, a town where gray buildings stood completely gone, smashed to timbers and debris. It was a horrific sight that only got worse as time went on.

WERTHEIMER: They had lost their connection to the mainland. The bridges were gone. They had no water - no freshwater. The next day - I guess this is fairly typical of hurricanes - was a beautiful day.

ROKER: Yeah. And when you think about what Galveston was 24 hours earlier, it was a crown jewel of the Gulf Coast. You know, they had electricity. They had telegraph. They had telephone. They had rail service. It was, you know, the gilded age.

WERTHEIMER: How many people actually died? Do you have any idea how many?

ROKER: It's - conservative - that about eight to 10,000 people died. And that this, to this day, is still the greatest natural disaster to hit this country in terms of devastation, in terms of death toll. It's almost hard to fathom how incredible - the power of this storm and what it did. It literally wiped a city off the map.

WERTHEIMER: And you point out that after this happened, the idea that, you know, that Galveston really had only itself to blame. I mean, this was a natural port, and it was built on a sandbar. It was in most places only about 8 feet above sea level. And to have built it there in the first place would be crazy, and they rebuilt it anyway.

ROKER: It really was a feat of engineering and of sheer willpower that they constructed a seawall - a 17-foot seawall that ran about three miles. But that wasn't enough. They realized that to protect downtown, they were going to have to raise it. So they literally raised about 500 buildings anywhere from 8 to 18 inches so that it was less susceptible to flooding.

WERTHEIMER: As a weatherman, do you think that you can say now that what happened to Galveston is impossible, that it won't happen again? I don't mean that the storms won't happen again. I mean, Hurricane Katrina was a hideous storm that killed a lot of people, and the property loss was terrible. But do you think that the lessons of storms like that, but especially of Galveston, mean that the loss of life and property on that scale really isn't likely to happen again?

ROKER: I don't think we would see the loss of life on that scale. But if the people who lead our governments don't exercise leadership, those delays will cost lives. We saw that in Hurricane Katrina. Yet, I think when we look at Superstorm Sandy a couple of years ago, there was a will by elected officials and people who were in charge so that I think you saw a mitigation of loss of life. There was nothing that could be done about infrastructure damage and buildings and homes and businesses. But the good news is, I think, well, I don't think we'll ever - God willing, ever - see the loss of life as we did in the hurricane of 1900.

WERTHEIMER: Al Roker, who knows which way the wind blows. His new book is called "The Storm Of The Century: The Great Gulf Hurricane Of 1900." Thank you very much.

ROKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.