All you really need to know about the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history is that they burned so many bodies for so long afterward that sailors were gagging from the smell 50 miles out at sea.
"There's no way of telling how many the storm actually killed," says author Erik Larson as he Jeeps his way along Galveston Island's beautifully desolate western end, where the water appears higher than the sand. "The generally accepted figure is 6,000, but it could just as well be 10,000 because so many were never found. We may be driving over their bones right now."
That's a reasonable guess. The people of Galveston unearthed skeletons for years after the storm hit 99 years ago Sept. 8. And if that thought of what the Big One can do makes you a little uncomfortable right now on the beach at Hatteras or Hyannis or Ocean City, that's all right with Larson. His gripping new book, "Isaac's Storm," which tells the story of the Galveston hurricane in excruciating, Grand Guignol detail, threatens to become the "Jaws" of hurricane yarns. Except that it's all true.
And just because the same climatological factors present in 1900--prolonged nationwide heat wave, unusually calm, overheated Gulf of Mexico--are present this summer, you shouldn't draw too many conclusions.
Even though scientists say we face a more severe than normal hurricane season. Even though there's a 54 percent probability that at least one "major" hurricane will strike the East Coast this year.
By late afternoon, the barge contained seven hundred corpses. A steam tugboat towed the barge to the designated burial ground eighteen miles out in the Gulf, but it arrived well after nightfall and the darkness made it impossible for the crew to work. They spent the night among arms and legs brought back to life by the gentle rocking of the sea. Dead hands clawed for the moon.
At dawn the men began attaching weights to the bodies--anything that would sink. . . . They worked quickly. Too quickly, apparently, for by the end of the day bodies began returning to Galveston. The sea drove scores of them back onto the city's beaches.
--From "Isaac's Storm"
It's tempting to think that a hurricane disaster the scope of Galveston's couldn't happen today, even though plenty of densely populated island beach towns, like Ocean City, Md., are narrower than Galveston was then and just as flat. We have weather satellites now, and hurricane-hunter airplanes, not to mention radio and television. And much more scientific knowledge.
But the lesson of Larson's book is that Galvestonians had plenty of obvious warning that a big storm was coming. They knew what hurricanes could do. Like passengers on a sand-spit Titanic, they just refused to believe they could be in any danger. They caught streetcars to the beach to thrill at the sight of pier-perched bath houses the size of hotels being consumed by enormous waves. They could hear--and even feel--the stunning impact of those waves all the way across town. Boys and girls sailed washtubs delightedly in the wind-whipped streets as they flooded. The first intimation of what the storm would do, one survivor wrote, "came when the body of a child floated into the [railroad] station."
By then it was too late to leave.
Screaming 150 mph winds tore off roofs, flattened walls and exploded church steeples. Then a 20-foot tidal wave sent the Gulf surging over the eight-foot-high island, pushing before it a three-story-tall, miles-wide battering ram of shattered houses, broken railroad trestles, splintered piers and other wreckage that scoured half the city's blocks out of existence. Pictures taken after the storm show Galveston a corpse-littered deathscape, eerily foreshadowing, in places, the aftermath of a man-made storm in Hiroshima.
An Orphan of the Storm
If there's little such menace obvious today on Galveston's drowsy corner of the Gulf Coast, the 1900 storm remains the city's defining event and, Larson believes, one of the signal moments of the American century.
Beneath the peaceful sight of shrimp boats plying lazily in the steamy heat just beyond the surf line and the tourist families cruising the seawall in pedal-powered surreys lies a city that remains, despite heroic efforts, something of an orphan of the storm.
When the century began it was one of the nation's largest cities, a thriving cotton port of 38,000 that appeared poised to become the Gulf gateway to the American Southwest. It had the deepest harbor and the biggest banks and a citizenry that flaunted its prosperity in deep-galleried homes of brick and cypress festooned with massive cornices and rococo millwork. Even the commercial buildings and warehouses vied in their ornamentation, with cast-iron columns, running arches and polychrome brick set in planes of detailing. The city's Tremont Hotel was said by many to be the finest lodging south of St. Louis.
But in the wake of the hurricane, Gilded Age capitalists moved their money upstream from the killing zone, betting their future instead on a bayou-side cow town called Houston. A deep-water ship channel was dredged there by 1914. Galveston was bypassed, and left to nurse its decayed and jilted gentility with a poignance that novelist Edna Ferber would one day compare to that of Miss Havisham, the spectral bride in Dickens's "Great Expectations."
Beyond the "what if?" particulars of Lone Star geography and socioeconomics, however, Larson discovered in the history of the Galveston hurricane a cautionary tale of scientific tunnel vision and intellectual hubris, of bureaucratic backbiting in the growing federal government and willful disbelief on the part of the local citizenry.
At the heart of his story is Isaac Cline, a sobersided man of science who headed the infant U.S. Weather Bureau's Galveston office and managed to convince himself, in spite of both history and logic, that the city was somehow immune to hurricanes.
"Isaac was very much a transitional figure in the history of America," Larson says. "He was very serious, very purposeful . . . a guy who at the age of 6 was getting up at 3 a.m. so he could set his trap lines before he had to start his chores at 4 a.m. He was just the sort of earnest young man the young Weather Bureau wanted to help discover the elusive 'law of storms' that would explain hurricanes and tornadoes. Because the science of weather was as compelling to America then as quantum physics."
Cline survived the hurricane--he died in 1955--but Larson initially found him more than a puzzle. He had written a memoir and several other books, and in those and several local histories of the storm he emerges as something of a hero--a man who risked his life riding the beach to warn people once the scope of the hurricane became clear.
"That didn't resonate well with me," Larson says. "Here's this storm that killed more people than any before or since and the head of the Weather Bureau is a hero? Clearly there was a story that was not being told . . . and I set out to find it."
Combing survivor accounts, Larson discovered that no one who claimed to be on the beach before the storm recalled seeing or being warned by Cline. Instead he found a 1891 article by Cline dismissing any chance of a killer hurricane ever hitting Galveston. "It would be impossible," he wrote nine years before the tidal surge erased half of Galveston and drowned his own wife, "for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city."
But to Larson, Cline is not so much a villain as the personification of the intellectual self-certainty of the turn of the century--an attitude that a dozen years later would collide with a celebrated iceberg in the North Atlantic, and two years after that meet its death on the battlefields of France. Cline had plenty of company in ignoring the storm warnings, including his Weather Bureau colleagues in Washington and Havana, who refused to permit seasoned forecasters in Cuba (dismissed as excitable Latins) access to the bureau's West Indies reporting network.
Even as Galveston was counting its dead, a disdainful Weather Bureau official claimed that the hurricane could not have been the one the Cubans warned about when it passed over that island, because, he said, hurricanes never turned left. It had to have been another storm altogether.
A Document Junkie
Larson, 45, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who's now a contributing editor to Time magazine, says he'd been intrigued with hurricanes since he used to bodysurf their August waves as a boy on Long Island. But he said he never set out to write about one.
"I have always been interested in the year 1900, as much for its attitude as anything else" in shaping the themes and events of the 20th century, he says. He had set out to explore that idea by writing about a celebrated 1900 murder that took place in New York City.
"But one day in 1995 while doing research I turned a metaphoric page in the microfiche of the New York Journal and there were these photographs across the top of the page--photographs of a hurricane with massive damage beyond anything you could imagine. And I didn't know anything about it."
The more he read about it, "the more intrigued I became. It was irresistible to see something like that and not want to find out more. But I kept on researching the murder for about three months until finally I said to myself, 'Wait a minute. I'm fighting this murder idea, which may or not work as a book, when what I'm really enthralled with is this hurricane. I'm gonna do the hurricane.' "
In time he would make a half-dozen week-long research trips to Galveston, where he'd never been, but at least half the material in the book, he says, he found in the National Archives, the Library of Congress or the library of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
He is, he says, the most incurable sort of document junkie, and most of what he found was so obscure it had never been microfilmed. "I'm almost certain I was the first person in nearly a century to handle those memos and telegrams. They create a wonderful picture of the early bureaucratic battles and intra-agency turf wars that would presage those in the larger federal government to come. I wish I could have gotten more of that into the book. But I had to keep reminding myself I was writing about Galveston and about a storm."
A Common Epitaph
For some reason, Larson's publisher, Crown Books, has chosen not to release "Isaac's Storm" formally until the Sept. 8 anniversary of the Galveston hurricane, thereby eliminating the season's most obvious beach book this month.
Some galley copies have been circulating here, however, to generally favorable reviews. But Galveston has long had an understandably ambivalent attitude toward the hurricane. On the one hand, it's the defining event in the city's history. On the other, it's not exactly something you advertise to attract business.
The city has never erected any sort of memorial to the 6,000-plus who died, though a 27-minute film, "The Great Storm," tells the story for tourists, and a yearlong commemoration is planned for the hurricane's centennial year.
In the wake of the storm, the city made some heroic if belated efforts at self-protection. The first was a six-mile seawall along the south side, built of reinforced concrete on creosoted piling driven 40 feet into the sand. In front of the wall was a protective layer of granite blocks 16 feet thick at the base and reaching 17 feet above mean low tide. It was completed in 1904 and proved its value in a 1915 hurricane that brought a 14-foot tidal surge and, some said, was even stronger than the 1900 storm. The city still suffered damage, but only 12 lives were lost.
The second protective effort was even more ambitious--a six-year dredging project that raised the level of the entire city by pumping sand from the Gulf. Water and sewer pipes, rail lines and streetcar tracks had to be raised, houses and even major buildings jacked up and sand pumped under them. More than 2,100 buildings had to be moved twice. The island was thus raised almost 17 feet near the sea wall on the Gulf side of the city, and sloped gradually downward to the north. There have been successive grade raisings and sea wall extensions since.
Perhaps nothing indicates Galvestonians' determination to stand in the face of nature more than the headquarters of the American National Insurance Co., a 355-foot-high, 20-story building that stands atop 55-foot stilts, rather like a granite offshore oil rig in the middle of the city.
Around it, Galveston has gradually grown to more than twice its pre-hurricane population. Twenty-odd miles to the west, beyond the protection of the sea wall and the grade raisings, more than 6,000 vacation homes have been built in recent decades--some close to $1 million in value without so much as a sand dune between them and potential disaster.
Lee "Otie" Zapp Jr., 63, whose grandfather founded Zapp Realty the year before the great storm, says prospective purchasers of those houses rarely even ask about hurricanes. "Most of them come from the Houston area," he says.
The 1900 death toll on that end of the island is even less certain than that in the city. Most of the thousands of corpses were burned where they were found. But some, including Isaac Cline's wife, were buried in Galveston's Longview Cemetery. Browsing among the tombstones you can find them, particularly children, by the common epitaph: "Died in the Great Storm, Sept. 8, 1900."
Other remnants of the hurricane endure, less concrete but no less permanent.
"That storm is still a very potent force here," says John Ferguson, a 30-year Galvestonian awed by the memories of his fellow citizens with deeper roots. He remembers Paul Burka, managing editor of the Texas Monthly, describing a meeting some years ago between his mother and his future mother-in-law. They needed to trim the list of wedding guests, which had gotten out of hand.
"The mother-in-law suggested eliminating a Mrs. Smith whom neither family knew well. But Mrs. Burka was horrified, wouldn't have it, wouldn't even hear of it," Ferguson says. "Mrs. Smith's grandfather, she said, had given Mrs. Burka's grandfather shelter during the hurricane. You would think it all happened just yesterday."
CAPTION: Devastation of biblical proportions: In an early engraving of the disaster, men shoot "ghouls, found despoiling the dead," lower left; bodies are incinerated, lower right.
CAPTION: "Isaac's Storm" author Erik Larson, on a Galveston beach, found no Weather Bureau hero in the tragedy.
CAPTION: The Deep Water Saloon amid the wreckage of a train, left, and an unclaimed body after the "Great Storm" of 1900. Many of the dead were never found after the disaster, which claimed thousands of lives.