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home : opinion : opinion November 20, 2017

8/30/2017 12:01:00 AM
Texas Storm: History Repeats Itself ...Again

Tammy Wilson
Guest Columnist

Most of us watching the Hurricane Harvey recovery are horrified by the destruction and misery.

The few bright spots are seeing people and their pets brought to safety and Newton’s own Brock Long, the newly appointed FEMA administrator, in charge of recovery efforts.

Meanwhile, breathless reporters claim this is a never-before-seen event. “Record-breaking,” “unprecedented,” “beyond anything experienced,” they say.

To those who know American history, the drama unfolding in Southeast Texas is all too familiar. The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Best-selling author Erik Larson described this shocking episode in his historical novel, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. If you haven’t read it, now would be an appropriate time.

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Isaac Cline was the chief meteorologist for Galveston, Texas in 1900. On Sept. 7 of that year, most people were unaware of the monstrous storm brewing in the Gulf of Mexico that would flatten most of Galveston and its surroundings. Winds reached 145 mph when the Great Galveston Hurricane made landfall. Back then, Hurricanes didn’t have first names or “category” designations, though like Harvey, it would have been Category 4.

I remember the vivid episodes in Larson’s book, about a family desperately trying to ride out the storm in their second floor, then their attic and roof, while waves collapsed walls and sent the building off its foundation. And I think of pathetic souls caught trying to escape in a passenger train swamped in rising water.

Isaac Cline was skeptical about his over-confident colleagues. He felt unease about atmospheric readings the night of Sept. 7, but he felt uneasy, and rightly so. A few years earlier, he had derided the idea of building a sea wall for Galveston, a measure that could have helped prevent some of the destruction of 1900.

In Cline’s day, weather forecasting was in its infancy. Without modern communications systems, satellite imagery and hurricane-hunting aircraft, forecasters had scant knowledge of the immense hurricane brewing in the Caribbean. It had already blown across Cuba, and was intensifying over open water.

The Texas coast was full of tourists at the time, reveling in the last chance to enjoy summer as clouds thickened and wind began to pick up. But few wanted to be bothered with moving off the beach to higher ground.

In a saving grace, Cline bent the rules of convention to issue a hurricane warning to Galveston on Sept. 8, but it was too little too late. The storm was busy destroying everything in its path. Bodies washed ashore for days and weeks afterward. The final death toll was estimated between 6,000 to 8,000 people. Property damage was no less than $30 million.

The science behind modern weather forecasting had its impetus with the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. Amazingly, most U.S. history texts omit this calamity and relatively few have ever heard of Isaac’s Storm.

By the way, author Erik Larson, will be in Hickory this fall as part of the Visiting Writers Series at Lenoir-Rhyne University. The program will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, at P.E. Monroe Auditorium.

Larson, a major player among contemporary writers, has enjoyed much success with other novels that explore stories behind history’s headlines. Among them are Dead Wake, about the sinking of the LusitaniaThe Devil in the White City, about serial killings during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; and Thunderstruck, about the invention of the radio.

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