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Interview with Erik Larson: The Hurricane that Destroyed Galveston in 1900

Mr. Larson is the author of Isaac's Storm : A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. We conducted this interview by email.

Some 6,000 people died in the Galveston hurricane. No one yet knows how many died in Katrina. But we know that many died because they couldn't -- or wouldn't -- evacuate. Did that happen in Galveston?

First, I think the best tally of the dead in Galveston alone is really closer to 10,000. Six thousand is based on a census after the storm and is the generally accepted number. My research tells me it’s conservative.

Galveston’s situation was very different than that in New Orleans. The Galveston storm came by surprise, and by the time people realized a monster hurricane had arrived, the rail and carriage routes off the island had been destroyed. The storm that struck New Orleans was not at all a surprise.

Also, I’d be cautious about anticipating a huge death toll in New Orleans. I heard a report on NPR today that officials had brought 25,000 body bags to New Orleans. I’m sticking my neck out here, but I’d be surprised if the toll in New Orleans topped 200. Those may be famous last words. I think where the death toll may turn out to be shockingly high is in Mississippi, in Gulport and Biloxi, and surrounding coastal areas. As of this moment—c. 6:30 Pacific time, Sept. 8, 2005—the toll in Mississippi already is over 200, in New Orleans, somewhere around 50.

Did authorities try to evacuate everybody?

Again, in Galveston there was no opportunity to evacuate. Once the storm’s power became clear, people did begin leaving their homes along the beach and moved to the center of the city, but this offered little protection as most of Galveston was at sea level. The highest point in the city was only eight feet above sea level. The storm surge was well over 20 feet. For a time, the entire city was under water, and a multi-story wall of debris, pushed by the storm surge and by powerful waves, scoured away whole neighborhoods. Similar, though smaller, mounds of debris appear to have accumulated at points well inland of the beach in Biloxi and Gulfport. Probing those piles could be a grim task.

How extensive was the media coverage of Galveston?

Very extensive. The story made global news for a time, and dominated headlines for weeks throughout America.

Did the president and Congress play a leading role in responding to the Galveston disaster?

No. A vast outpouring of money and supplies from individuals around the country, and the world, accounted for most of the response. The Red Cross arrived in force, with none other than Clara Barton at the helm. U.S. military forces were dispatched to Galveston, but in fact local civilian authorities had managed to keep order. Rumors of atrocities, such as theft of victim’s jewelry, were rife but as best anyone can tell were unfounded. Strong community ties that transcended race held Galveston together.

Did Galveston have any effects on public policy?

The Relief Committee established by local officials and civic leaders immediately after the storm evolved into a new form of city government in which the mayor became, in effect, chairman of a board of elected commissioners who each managed a different city function. Hundreds of cities subsequently adopted the form. Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, said, “We have got down very low in regard to our municipal governments, and we have got dark days here now, but we can see a light breaking, and one of the lights broke in Galveston.”

Also, the storm taught the Weather Bureau a valuable lesson, hitherto unacknowledged: That it was the storm surge in a hurricane that was the most dangerous, not the direct effect of wind (though of course wind, and to some extent low barometric pressure, are what cause a surge, or dome of water, to accumulate and move forward with a hurricane).

Are you struck by the parallels or the differences between Katrina and Galveston?

In what happened to New Orleans, I see few parallels other than the obvious—that Galveston and New Orleans both were disasters waiting to happen, Galveston because the entire city was at sea level, New Orleans, because much of the city is below sea level. The real parallels are between Galveston and Gulfport/Biloxi. However, here I must insert a caveat: I have not been to New Orleans since Katrina, and like most everyone else I know only what I see on television and read in the newspapers. I feel I know very little, actually.

How has your work on the Galveston disaster shaped your response to Katrina--on a personal level?

Needless to say I watched coverage of the advance of the storm and its aftermath with deep interest. During the tail-end of my research for Isaac’s Storm some seven years ago I polled half a dozen of the leading hurricane experts who all agreed that one day a hurricane could again cause mass death. Number one on each expert’s list of nightmares was New Orleans. And there, on CNN and the Weather Channel, was the storm of their nightmares, seemingly headed for a direct impact in New Orleans. It was very strange. This may sound strange, but New Orleans got off relatively easy. Had Katrina maintained her Category 5 strength and struck New Orleans head on, those thousands of body bags might in fact have been necessary.

Do you think the media have given a balanced account of the disaster? In our phone call setting up this interview you indicated that your research on the Galveston hurricane has led you to conclude the media have been underplaying the effect of Katrina on the Gulf Port and Biloxi. Please tell us what you meant.

Clearly New Orleans is a big story. A good portion of the city was flooded after the two breaks occurred in the city’s protective levee network, and the events in the Superdome provided an easy focus for reporters and producers. But as best I can tell—and again, I know only what I read and see in press coverage—the most severe, head-on damage from Katrina was inflicted in Gulfport and Biloxi and surrounding coastal areas. From time to time the networks did provide aerial video of these areas, and the damage was appalling, with great mounds of debris massed at the point where the storm surge halted. Those images very much evoked for me Galveston and the terror so many Galvestonians faced as the storm surge advanced. Based on Galveston’s experience, I would expect that recovery teams will find quite a few more dead among these debris basins as the weeks wear on.

Some disasters are forgotten by Americans while others remain vivid. The Mississippi flood of 1927 cost between 250 to 500 deaths and was largely forgotten and so was the Flood of 1928, which cost the lives of some 2500 blacks in Florida. The Great Labor Day disaster of 1935 killed some 400 people in the Florida Keys--and was forgotten. Why has the Galveston Hurricane not been forgotten?

Actually, the Galveston storm was indeed forgotten. I would argue that until my book was published in 1999, few outside Texas knew of the storm. Within Texas, however, it was well known, and taught as part of the Texas history portion of the middle-school curriculum.

The question really should be, why was such a lethal storm forgotten for so long. The glib answer is, I have no idea. But one possibility is that the storm occurred in a far-flung locale that seemed foreign and remote to the bulk of America’s population, which lived east of the Mississippi. Also, America in 1900 was in no mood to dwell on sorrow and bad news. The future beckoned. And finally, Galveston did not want the storm remembered, at least not outside its own borders. Galveston had been a city intent on becoming the dominant trading city on the Gulf, and took steps after the storm to reassure outsiders that it still was a viable place to set up business. Promoting the death of the city was decidedly not in the interests of the city’s leading citizens. Indeed, the great unsung engineering miracle of the early 20th century occurred when Galveston raised the grade of the entire city well above sea level, in part to convince the world that Galveston would be safe from future storms.

Galveston isn’t safe, by the way. Those same top hurricane experts all included Galveston in their top five nightmare scenarios. I can only wonder what Galvestonians were thinking as Katrina bore down on Biloxi and Gulfport.

Related Links

  • HNN's Katrina Coverage