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Friday, September 23, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Galveston has seen worse

Seattle Times book editor

Seattle author Erik Larson's 1999 book, "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History," tells the story of the monster 1900 hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas, killing between 8,000 and 12,000 people and destroying Galveston's gilded dreams.

Larson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and National Book Award finalist for "The Devil in the White City," has followed this hurricane season with one foot in the present and one in Galveston in 1900. As Hurricane Rita headed toward the Texas coast, Larson talked about the killer hurricane of 1900 and the lessons it holds for today:

Q. What kind of town was Galveston in 1900?

A. It was a pretty small city. But it had its heart set on becoming the next New Orleans, a big player on the Gulf. It was a wealthy city, with shipping lines and consulates. The city was built at sea level — its highest point was eight feet above sea level

Q. Give readers some idea of the power of the 1900 hurricane.

A. In terms of sheer power, there seem to be a lot of similarities. Experts contend that the 1900 storm was a Category 4, but I say it was a Category 5. That's based on a pretty impressionistic sense of what happened during the storm. When it came ashore, no one knew how powerful it was. All the instruments capable of measuring barometric pressure and wind speed were destroyed well before the storm.

There were buildings that had their top floors sheered off. Galveston Island was completely submerged. As the storm surge came ashore, it built up a spine several stories high of debris, and shoved that across the island as if it were a road grader.

Q. The road-grader effect you describe is reminiscent of post-Katrina photos of the Mississippi coast — everything scraped way, nothing left.

A. The parallels between Katrina and the 1900 storm were most vividly expressed in Gulfport and Biloxi. The flooding in New Orleans — I don't want to minimize it, it was scary and lethal. But what the guys in Gulfport and Biloxi got — they had the Galveston experience: storm surges, powerful winds and this debris effect, large piles moving across the beach.

Q. Why did so many people die in the 1900 storm?

A. Everyone knew there would be a storm, but there are always storms in the summertime. On that particular day (Sept. 8), the city was still full of summer visitors. People were coming down to the beach to picnic. When people began to realize this was not a routine storm, when it began tearing apart structures on the beach, they thought, maybe we should get off the beach. But there was nowhere to go. A ship off its moorings had crashed through all the available exits.

Q. Why didn't Galveston know it was coming?

A. It was partially good old U.S. hubris. There was a homegrown observation system in Cuba, a group of weather watchers trained to know and watch for signs of a hurricane's approach. These Cuban weather observers were pretty convinced that this was an unusual storm and would be a hurricane when it left Cuba. The U.S. had long had a jealous relationship with this Cuban network. They forbade the Cubans from using the telegraph lines to send weather bulletins. The U.S. had its own system of weather stations, but they botched it. The U.S. observation network was reporting that there was no threat.

Q. Can Galveston withstand a monster hurricane today?

A. After the hurricane, in an attempt to keep up with Houston, they raised 2,000 buildings in Galveston, including a cathedral, up on jacks up to 18 feet. Then they dumped in 11 million pounds of fill. Then they built a 17-foot seawall. But one fear emergency-management folks have always had in Galveston is that people would place false confidence in the seawall.

Q. What has struck you as you have watched the aftermath of Katrina unfold?

A. The thing that kept leaping out at me during the coverage of Katrina was: Why aren't you spending more time in Gulfport and Biloxi? I was also appalled at how naive the newscasters or their producers were in accepting these predictions that there would be tens of thousands of deaths. That was utterly irresponsible. If you had tens of thousands of deaths, you would know — you could smell it.

Still, in the history of modern hurricanes, to have 1,000 people dead is incredible. When I was researching the book I would ask experts, what is your worst nightmare — given modern prediction, will there ever be a hurricane that kills more than 1,000 people? They all said yes. The top two scenarios were always New Orleans and Galveston.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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