Galveston's Deadly Hurricane of 1900

The mayor of Galveston, Texas, declared a state of emergency last night in anticipation of Hurricane Rita's landfall. Noah Adams looks back at a hurricane that killed thousands in Galveston back in 1900 and speaks to Erik Larson, the author of Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

As we reported a few moments ago, residents of Galveston, Texas, are being forced to evacuate their homes. The people there know just what a hurricane is capable of. Early in September 1900, Galveston was totally destroyed when a storm without a name came off the Gulf and killed thousands in minutes. Erik Larson is the author of a well-known about that tragedy. It's called "Isaac's Storm." And he spoke with us earlier from member station KPLU in Seattle.

Welcome, Mr. Larson.

Mr. ERIK LARSON (Author, "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History"): Thanks. Glad to be here.

ADAMS: They always say about this storm that it came on a beautiful day. Is that true?

Mr. LARSON: Well, Saturday, September 8th, 1900, was actually, I think, a pretty dismal day from the get-go. You already had foul weather that morning. The storm had made itself known much earlier with some northerly winds which were coming off the top of the spiral of the hurricane. And as the storm moved ashore, of course, those northerly winds turned into winds from the south that drove the sea into Galveston. But no, it was not a terribly nice day. In fact, there had been some pretty awful hot, humid, Galvestonian weather leading up to the storm.

ADAMS: When the storm came ashore, how high were the winds and how high was the storm surge in terms of water?

Mr. LARSON: Yeah, the storm surge was well over 20 feet, which posed a serious problem to the city of Galveston because Galveston was at that point entirely at sea level. In fact, the highest point in the city was eight feet. So you do the math right there, you see there's a serious problem. Now I would say that the storm surge problem was compounded by the fact that when the storm arrived, because of the spiral of the hurricane, because the first winds that would be felt in Galveston were actually from the north, it had the effect of raising a smaller storm surge on Galveston Bay, which is to the north of Galveston Island where the city's located. So you had that surge beginning some initial flooding of the city. Then once the winds changed directions as the spiral came ashore, then you got the ocean surge. So you really had two surges meeting over Galveston, submerging the entire city for a period of time.

The wind speeds--it's very hard to gauge exactly what the maximum speeds were because all the wind-speed gauges and pressure gauges were destroyed as the storm came ashore. I think best estimates hold that there were sustained winds of 150 miles an hour and gusts of 200 or better that struck Galveston.

ADAMS: I know you spent a lot of time in Galveston. Can you feel this storm approaching Galveston now?

Mr. LARSON: Yeah. I'll tell you, when I visited Galveston the first time, it was very hard at first to visualize what might have happened during the storm of 1900 or any subsequent storm, because what had happened after that great storm was that the city had raised the entire elevation of Galveston, beginning with a new seawall that went as high as 17 feet. But I found that when I went to the far eastern and western ends of the island that I really got a vivid sense of what it must have been like then, how flat the city was. And then to imagine yourself being trapped on this island--and that's what happened. The storm came very much by surprise. By the time people realized that something really unusual and quite serious was happening, all the exit routes off the island had been destroyed. It must've been just utterly terrifying.

And frankly, I think the best contemporary analog to what people experienced is not necessarily New Orleans, but what people experienced in Gulfport and Biloxi, which I think still is sort of the great, largely untold story of Katrina.

ADAMS: Talking with us from KPLU in Seattle, Erik Larson. His book is called "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History."

Thank you, Mr. Larson.

Mr. LARSON: Sure.

ADAMS: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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