THE STORM OF THE CENTURY: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival and the Epic True Story of America's Deadliest Natural Disaster: The Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900, by Al Roker. William Morrow, 312 pp., $27.99.
Showboating weather forecasters love to strut their stuff during hurricane season by broadcasting live from the storm front. It's needlessly dangerous work, but it stokes the ratings. Al Roker, the genial figure known to millions for his weight loss and way with the weather on "Today," had the good sense to take on a historic hurricane -- the monster 1900 storm that destroyed Galveston, Texas -- from the comfort (and safety) of his desk.
Roker, author of several food and self-help titles, turns out to be a pretty good writer of historical narrative nonfiction. "The Storm of the Century" really puts you in it, as Roker details how winds greater than 200 m.p.h. and 15-foot waves left some 10,000 dead and flattened this rough-and-tumble port city on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. His account of sundry Galvestonians -- a grocer, a schoolteacher, a newlywed, the police chief and others -- can get a bit corny, but Roker's finesse with the meteorological details lends a scientific heft to the melodrama.
Nature was not the only culprit in the disaster; hubris played a tragic role, too. City leaders arrogantly assumed the port could withstand anything that came at it. But the U.S. Weather Bureau was the real guilty party here. Though its employees prided themselves on their fidelity to science, some peculiar notions prevailed, among them the "recurve effect," which held that a hurricane coming across Cuba would automatically turn northeast toward Florida.
Bigotry also played an unfortunate role. Cuban forecasters, all too familiar with massive storms, were pioneers of storm tracking. But U.S. weather chief Willis Moore held Cuban meteorology in contempt, even banning weather-related telegraph transmissions from the island. (Moore was so pigheaded he also banned the words "tornado" and "hurricane" from bulletins so as not to incite panic.)
But it was Cuban forecasters who correctly predicted that the massive storm, "a fully organized circular system of destruction, literally hundreds of miles across," was headed northwest and taking dead aim at Galveston.
Isaac Cline, the weather service's man on the ground in Galveston, realized that something was very wrong as Washington continued in denial. Moore conceded there was a storm, but insisted it was not a hurricane. On Sept. 7, one day before the hurricane broke over the island, Cline scrambled to reconcile contradictory messages from his superiors with what was happening before his own eyes. But it was too late.
Roker's account of the storm itself pulses with kinetic detail. Rain and rising tides pummeled the city; by Sept. 8 rising water covered the city's high ground and Broadway, the well-to-do thoroughfare. Wind lashed the island: two men joking in a saloon were crushed by a printing press that fell from the floor above. Cline and his brother struggle to keep their families together as raging waters surged around Isaac's house.
The aftermath presented rescuers, including Clara Barton of Red Cross fame, with a landscape of dread. Even hardened correspondents recoiled at the site (and stench) of thousands of bodies putrefying in the hot Texas air. "Flying debris and falling walls had ripped people completely apart. Severed body parts were all over the piles," Roker writes.
But from such grimness the city rose again. Galvestonians were tough: "Chastened by disaster, overcome by grief, daunted by horrifying logistics, they nevertheless began to plan ahead." There are surely more storms in our future, but the story of Galveston's recovery is an inspiring study in resilience.