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At the turn of the 20th century, Galveston, Texas was a bustling city, transformed from a sand bar to a wealthy port town. Today we know how vulnerable the small island in the gulf is to storms, but in the summer of 1900, hurricanes were far from the minds of its residents. As “Today” weather anchor Al Roker says in his new book, “The Storm of the Century,” the ability to predict hurricanes was still in its infancy. When a hurricane landed in Galveston in early September, the city was completely unprepared, leading to the most deadly natural disaster in the country’s history. Al Roker joins Diane to talk about the great gulf hurricane of 1900.
- Al Roker Author, "The Storm of the Century". He is the weather anchor for NBC's Today and he hosts "Wake Up with Al" on the the Weather Channel.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from ‘The Storm of the Century’by Al Roker. Copyright 2015. Reprinted with permission from William Morrow. All Rights Reserved.
Video: Searching For Bodies In Galveston
This 1900 film, shot by the Edison Manufacturing Co, shows crews digging through rubble after a hurricane ravaged the town of Galveston, Texas. The film is held in the Library of Congress.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, in 1900 killed as many as 10,000 people, nearly a quarter of its residents. It became a defining moment for America. The country was forced to confront the power of nature and how vulnerable the rising nation was to it. Meteorologist Al Roker recounts the story in his new book, "The Storm of the Century." Al Roker is co-host and weather anchor of NBC's "Today." He joins me from the NPR studios in New York City.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, comments, questions, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Al Roker, it's a pleasure to see you.
MR. AL ROKEROh, thank you. Nice seeing you, Diane. I actually can see you because we're streaming right now so that's kind of cool.
REHMWe're streaming right now. Al Roker, I want you to know this is a really gripping story and I wonder what started you on it.
ROKERWell, you know, I was -- this was about a year and a half ago and I was already thinking about the year -- the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and so I started looking into that and, boy, you know, everybody in meteorology talk about major hurricanes and you always have to talk about Galveston. And I started reading up more about it again. It had been a long time since I had looked at and the more I read about it, I thought, my gosh, this is, you know, I mean, Katrina was horrible. There's no question about it.
ROKERBut the death toll and the devastation in Galveston really dwarfs Katrina. And I thought, you know what, I really think that there's something here. And so I started looking into it a little bit more and a little bit more and I realized there was so much. And, look, first of all, right off the bat, Erik Larson's book, "Isaac's Storm," about Isaac Cline, the hurricane...
ROKER...meteorologist who was based in Galveston, I mean, he wrote really what I consider the definitive book on it. And so -- and I don't even consider myself in the same league as Erik Larson, but -- I mean, his book on the Lusitania, I just finished, and it's just amazing. But, you know, I thought that there were a lot of other stories to tell and so I hired a great guy, a researcher named Bill Hoagland, who just does amazing work, and found all these amazing stories and all these poignant stories and we were able to, I think, through that research, I was able to then kind of weave these stories together.
ROKERAnd what was great about it, it was -- you didn't have to embellish anything. There was -- it was...
ROKERYou didn't have to -- it's all there.
REHMIt's all there.
ROKERIt's all there. The thing that I find gratifying is the number of people who have come up to me and said, this is a movie. I could see this as a movie. And you almost think it's too fantastical to be a movie because it is the ultimate disaster movie, but it's also the ultimate survivor, survival movie and the ultimate rebirth movie because so much happens in this and there's so many intersections at the turn of the century of great historical fact and figures.
REHMBut, you know, what struck me is that Galveston, at the time, had a population of about 37,000 and the estimates are that 10,000 people died. Is that an accurate figure?
ROKERWe don't know for sure, but you can go anywhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people. But rest assured, about a third of their population perished. It is still the worst natural disaster to ever befall this country, which is amazing.
REHMTake us back to that year of 1900. Who was there in Galveston? What was it like? How did they manage? Was it prosperous, was it struggling? What was it like?
ROKERIt was an amazing prosperous city. Now, when you think about less than 100 years earlier, this -- basically this sand bar was claimed by Jean Lafitte, the pirate, and you go forward and it has become a prosperous port city, more prosperous than New Orleans. It was considered, in a way, the Paris of the Gulf coast. They had electricity before most cities in Texas and most cities in the south. They had sidewalks. They had boardwalks. They had grand promenades.
ROKERThey had telephone. They had telegraph. There were more -- you mentioned 37,000 people. There were more millionaires per capita in Galveston than any other city in the United States.
ROKERIt was an extremely prosperous city. Population-wise, it was very interesting in that you had whites, Hispanics. You had Jews. You had blacks, all living there, and for black people, it was -- there was still segregation. There was still a lot of oppression. In fact, a lot of people didn't realize -- I didn't realize that that African-American holiday, Juneteenth, about emancipation started in Galveston.
ROKERIt was really a very interesting city at the time and a very progressive city. And because of the trade of cotton and of sugar and shipping, it was really -- everybody thought that there was nothing they couldn't do.
REHMAnd what did people there think about hurricanes at the time?
ROKERThey had been hit by big storms and they always cleaned up, but there was nothing that they -- it wasn't anything they couldn't handle. And there had been talk about building a sea wall, but, you know, there was a very, you know, look. At the turn of century, America was feeling really good. We were America and there was nothing we couldn't do and nothing we couldn't handle. And so while there had been storms, there was nothing that -- it wasn't that people couldn't deal with.
ROKERThere had been some flooding. There had been some beach erosion. There had been some damage, but they always built it back and people went about their business.
REHMYou mentioned Erik Larson's book about Isaac Cline, but tell us about him. He was one of the country's best meteorologists.
ROKERYes, especially when it came to hurricane forecasting. Nobody was considered better than Isaac Cline and his brother, Joseph, was there with him. They basically, you know, the U.S. weather bureau, it was really a part of the war department and eventually spun off and became what we call today, the National Weather Service. So it was really an amazing place to be for a weather man. And at the time, this was before computers. This was before satellite.
ROKERThis was before radar. This was before weather balloons.
ROKERWhere, you know, information was collected manually and sent via telegraph to Washington, D.C. and then disseminated out. So by the time you got your information, it was already hours old. But the state of the art, at the time, before digital stuff came in, you know, they pretty much had what was the state of the art and what we were using as far as physical instruments right up until the 1950s and '60s. But they really -- they did a remarkable job with what they had to work with.
ROKERBut what was even more fascinating was that the Cuban government and the Cubans, well, not even the government, the Jesuits in Cuba were the foremost hurricane specialists in the world. They had a network, a telegraphic network amongst -- in the Caribbean that allowed them to study and accurately predict hurricane movement and strength.
REHMSo even Isaac Cline really did not believe that a major hurricane could really do huge damage to Galveston.
ROKERWell, he thought it could, but that as long as they could predict it, they could protect against it. And the sad part was -- and it's kind of prescient that through political and some professional jealousies, the national -- the U.S. weather bureau did not want to believe what Cuba had to say about hurricanes. And so through a series of maneuvers, the Cuban forecasting was cut off from the United States. So and as this storm came in, was coming in and rolled across the Caribbean, the Cubans knew, this one Jesuit priest knew that this was going to be a bad storm and that most likely it was going to strike somewhere along the U.S. Gulf coast and most likely strike somewhere in Texas.
ROKERBut because the U.S. government and the war bureau and the U.S. weather bureau didn't want that information disseminated because they felt that we didn't need the Cubans. The Cubans don't know what they're talking about and we are going -- we are better than they are.
REHMAnd Isaac Cline himself said...
ROKERAnd so it was walled off. And Isaac Cline -- go ahead, I'm sorry.
REHM...you didn't need to build a sea wall and everybody listened to him.
ROKERRight, right. Yeah, yeah. And so, you know, it was hubris. There was a lot of hubris involved and a lot of lives could've been saved. But to watch this happen was, you know, as I went through the research -- and even though you know what's going to happen, you wish that it wasn't, that, oh, my gosh, if only they had done this. If only they had done that so many lives could've been saved.
REHMAl Roker, he's the author of the new book titled, "Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival and the Epic True Story of America's Deadliest Natural Disaster, The Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900." Do join us after a break.
REHMAnd we're back with Al Roker. He's co-host and weather anchor of NBC's the "Today" show. He's also co-host of the weather channel's "Wake Up with Al." But now he has a new book out, "The Storm of the Century," and it's all about the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900. Al Roker, before we proceed with this story about the hurricane in Galveston, tell us about your own background and what led you to become a meteorologist.
ROKERWell, you know, Diane, I had no interest actually in being on television. I took a couple of classes at SUNY Oswego in meteorology and environmental science. Back then, it was called ecology. And -- but I was a radio-TV major. I was going to be a producer or a writer. In fact, after my first television performance class, my department chairman said, Roker, you've got the perfect face for radio.
ROKERAnd he said -- it's a true story -- and toward the end of my sophomore year, my -- the same department chairman put me up for a job doing weekend weather at WHEM in Syracuse, N.Y., the CBS station. And I got the job. And -- but I thought, you know, I'll just do this until I get a real job. And I kept -- I got the Monday through Friday job at the end of my junior year. And then after -- six months after I graduated, I got a job at WTTG in Washington, D.C., that -- which...
ROKERYes. Yeah. Which changed my life because that's where I met Willard Scott. And, you know, he...
REHMAnd Willard Scott, as you may know, is one of the founders of WAMU.
ROKERYes. With Ed Walker.
REHMWith Ed Walker, who is still doing a Sunday night program, "The Big Broadcast" here in Washington.
ROKEROh, I didn't know that. Oh, my gosh.
REHMOh, yeah. Absolutely. Great program.
ROKERThey were such a great comedy team.
REHMYeah. Terrific comedy team.
ROKERThe Joy Boys.
REHMThe Joy Boys.
ROKERYeah. But, so that was...
REHMAll right. Let's go back to "The Storm of the Century." It started off the Cape Verde islands. Tell us about why storms tend to start there.
ROKERWell, you know, they come off -- these disturbances come off the Africa coast. And, you know, you've got this warm water and you've got favorable winds. And these storms can grow and can feed off that warmer water. And that becomes, you know, the engine, if you will, for these storms to grow. And so, as they do, they get more and more -- more and more strength. I'm just moving an iPad here so that we can continue to stream.
REHMI know. I see it. I see it.
ROKERThere we are. And, you know, so we will see those storms grow. It's interesting, this year, for example, we're not seeing much growth because of El Nino. Because El Nino, while it causes warmer waters for the Pacific, it keeps the waters cooler in the Atlantic and less favorable winds that shear off the tops of these thunderstorms so they don't get a chance to grow. But in those -- in that area between Africa and the Caribbean and then eventually the United States, you usually have this fertile ground, if you will, for these storms to form and grow.
REHMSo here you have these meteorologists in Cuba making predictions about the hurricane. The Jesuits, you mentioned -- tell us about the lead father on this project. He was the expert. I don't know how to pronounce his name, G-A-N-G-O-I-T-E.
ROKERWell, the interesting thing is -- and, ironically, I went to Xavier High School here in Manhattan, a Jesuit military school. I always said, we were ready for the next Crusade. But, you know, the Jesuits really were leaders in science and math and forward thinking. And so they embraced the technology of the day, which was the telegraph, to be able to create a network -- to be able to get almost real-time information about these storms, the barometric pressure, winds, temperatures, wind speed, wind direction -- and funnel that into one place there in Cuba. And so they were able to really study these storms over years and get an idea of how they performed and how they behaved and how they -- what was happening.
ROKERAnd to watch this and to see that they were predicting this storm -- not only that it was not going to curve over Florida and move out to sea, as the U.S. Weather Bureau was claiming, but that it was going to strengthen once it got out into the Gulf and take aim somewhere along the Texas coast, most likely Galveston. I mean, that was just amazing.
REHMAnd when does Isaac Cline finally realize he's got it wrong?
ROKEROnly about eight hours before.
ROKERYou know, between six to eight hours before, when he feels the winds kicking up, when he sees what's happening with the ocean. And to his credit -- because, look, the fact of the matter is, he was only going with what information he was given by the U.S. Weather Bureau out of Washington. The U.S. Weather Bureau...
REHMAnd the Weather Bureau was saying, "Oh, it's going to go up the coast of Florida."
ROKERIt's going up the coast. It's not going to be a problem.
ROKERAnd because, again, and it's -- it usually comes down to politicians protecting their jobs.
ROKERThe head of the U.S. Weather Bureau wanted to consolidate his authority, wanted to consolidate power in Washington. Sound familiar?
ROKERAnd so wanted to cut back on local forecasters making local forecasts for their communities. They had said, No, we'll do that. We'll tell you what to say. And so that -- in that climate, Isaac Cline was muzzled, was handcuffed, could not do what he could -- if he had had the correct information, he probably would have come to the conclusion that he's got a monster storm on its way.
REHMSo how big was it when it finally hit Galveston?
ROKERThis was a Category 4 storm. Some say it could have even been a Category 5 but definitely a Category 4 making its way with 200 mile-per-hour winds, with seas of 15 to 30 feet. I mean, even if it had been a normal coastline, as opposed to a sandbar that was at or slightly above sea level, it would have been difficult for the devastation not to have been total. But given the physicality of where Galveston lay on the Gulf, it was -- it was doomed.
ROKERIt was doomed.
REHMHow did Isaac Cline fare in this storm?
ROKERWell, interestingly enough, his family -- you know, he had a wife, he had small children, he had a wife who was expecting and his brother was with him -- and, you know, they man the U.S. Weather Bureau office for as long as they can. And then they head to his home. And his home washes -- they literally ride out the storm in his home...
ROKER...before it's eventually -- it gets torn off of its foundation...
ROKER...and taken out to sea. And he -- I won't give all of it away, but he loses family members.
ROKERBut it is -- the terror that he must have felt, because -- and many Galvestonians who were all of a sudden, everything they knew was gone, both physically and emotionally, landmarks, buildings, places that they knew were literally washed away. People were washed out to sea in their homes.
REHMAll right. We've got lots of callers. And our first one is from Galveston, Texas. Brent, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
BRENTGood morning. My grandfather got to Galveston in about 1895, so he lived through the storm. And he really didn't talk much about it. But he did tell one story, that he had a two-story house. One of the good neighbors came by with a cow and said, you know, "Can I get some shelter." And he was, "You're more than welcome, but really don't have room for the cow." Never saw the neighbor again.
BRENTHe was just gone. And, you know, part of the mythology around here is that Galveston could never get a bad hurricane. Now we knew Indianola had been destroyed, but there was this kind of stiff-neckedness that, you know, it can't happen to us. And I don't know if Al gets into Indianola and what happened to it in the 1870s, but it was a major port and it disappeared.
ROKERYeah. No, we didn't. But, yeah, you're absolutely right. There was this feeling that, "We're invincible. We're charmed. That storms just don't come here." They'd had some storms and they'd had flooding to deal with. But it wasn't anything they felt they couldn't handle.
REHMAll right. To...
ROKERAnd they finally got one that they couldn't.
REHMHere's another caller in Galveston, Texas. John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi, Diane. Yeah, I grew up with -- in Galveston with both my grandfathers, both of which lived in Galveston at the time of the storm. And so I heard many stories about the storm from the first person perspective. One of the things Mr. Roker hasn't mentioned is that the weekend the storm hit was Labor Day weekend and there were lots of extra visitors...
JOHN...on the island that weekend, including a number of aunts and uncles of my granddad, who were all in one house, 13 or 14 of them. The house went down in the storm. They were all lost.
JOHNExcept for one -- one girl cousin who was eight or nine. And they found her still alive in a tree the next morning a mile from the house.
ROKERThat was not uncommon.
JOHNAnd she grew up to be a very eccentric individual. I don't know how much that storm experience had to do -- had to do with that, but...
REHMWell, certainly that kind of experience could affect an awful lot of people. Al, tell us about the immediate problem afterwards, which was what to do with the thousands of dead bodies.
ROKERI know. And this is the hard part to talk about because, again, estimating, 10,000 people died. And when survivors emerged from the wreckage the next morning -- and of course, as is usually the case, it's a beautiful day after a storm -- and they saw literally bodies in the streets, piled one on top of the other, stripped of their clothing. It was horrific. And so very early on, in a sense, martial law was declared. And here's where it gets a little difficult, in a sense, that the gentleman put in charge kind of dragooned African-American men to be the people who dealt with the dead bodies.
REHMOh, my. Oh, my.
ROKERAnd the first thought was, you know what? We'll just put them on barges, take them out about 15, 20 miles, and dump them. So that's how they started. The problem was, the tide would bring the bodies back in.
ROKERAnd when they realized that they didn't have enough people, enough black people to do it, they started getting everybody -- anybody who could do it. And sadly, the only way to get rid of the bodies when you're on a sandbar was to burn them. And so they had funeral pyres going on for weeks. So if you can just imagine, you've lost everything and everywhere you look there are piles of bodies burning. I -- you know, you can't even begin to imagine.
REHMCannot (word?) .
ROKERAnd the area is completely cut off -- roads are washed away, the railroad tracks are gone, you are cut off. The only way onto the island is by boat. And most of those boats have been destroyed.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But somehow, didn't the media manage to make its way in?
ROKERWell, the interesting thing, when you talk about the media, I mean, at the time, you know, the media was newspapers. That was really the one overall media that we had -- national media, if you will. I mean, it really was kind of interesting in that you had two media moguls going at each other. You know, you had William Randolph Hearst...
ROKER...and you had Joseph Pulitzer.
ROKEROkay. And -- Pulitzer. And interestingly enough, you had two major characters who get enlisted by each of these guys. Winifred Black is a female crusading journalist and works for the William Randolph Hearst newspapers. He tasks her -- because she had done all these different exposes, first-person exposes -- he tasks here, he goes, you get in there and you get this story. She disguises herself as a male worker and is one of the first people who takes -- gets on a boat and gets over to the island and starts documenting everything she sees.
ROKERAnd then somehow gets off and gets to Houston.
REHMAnd Pulitzer brings in Clara Barton.
ROKERThat's right. Pulitzer convinces Clara Barton -- who at the time is 78 years old, started the Red Cross -- wants her to spearhead a relief effort down to Galveston, puts together a train with supplies, food, water, clothing, money, and sends that train down there, and with a little financial remuneration for Ms. Barton and her organization as well. And so you've got these two giants, who are performing great work -- not altogether altruistically, because it's a circulation war. And whoever is the person -- who's ever newspaper seems to be the one that cares the most about Galveston will reap the benefit.
REHMWhy did he have Winifred Black dress up as a man? And by the way, her pen name was Annie Laurie.
REHMBut why dress up as a man?
ROKERBecause at the time, no woman would have been allowed in there. And look, she was a pioneering journalist. There were not a lot of women newspaper people working at that time. Or if they were, they were doing the society columns and things like that. They weren't doing hard-hitting journalism like Winifred Black.
REHMSo she could cross all lines.
ROKERShe could cross over and she'd cross lines, but was able to get in there and then was able to get out and get to Houston and file all these reports ahead of time, before anybody else got in.
REHMAnd how well did Clara Barton's operation work?
ROKERIt worked well. I mean, they created a massive relief effort -- set up, you know, tent cities, if you will, to create this. And, by the way, each newspaper chain was raising money for the relief effort. And so that made a big, big difference.
REHMAl Roker, he's the author of the new book titled, "Storm of the Century." It's all about the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900. When we come back, more of your calls, your tweets, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd for those of you who've just joined us, Al Roker is my guest. He is co-host of NBC's "The Today Show." And he is an author, as well. A brand-new book titled "Storm of the Century: Tragedy, Heroism, Survival, and the Epic True Story of America's Deadliest Natural Disaster: The Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900." We're going to go right back to the phones to Conway, Ark. Hi there, Howard, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
HOWARDWell, good morning. And thank you for taking my call.
HOWARDMy life is better because of your work and because of Mr. Roker's work, too. And…
HOWARD…I'm a proud supporter of my local public radio station.
REHMThank you for that.
HOWARDMy question is -- sure. My question is simple. How did two-thirds of the population of Galveston, given the topography before the raising of the island -- 10 feet or more after the storm -- how did two-thirds of the population survive?
ROKERWell, Conrad (sic), to be perfectly honest it was luck. There was -- some people were far enough inland that they got flooding, but they didn't take the brunt of this storm. But a lot of people lived on -- very close to the beach, within blocks of the beach. And there was a lot of dense, you know, housing. There were a lot of apartment buildings or boarding houses, if you will. So you had a lot of people in a small area. But you also had folks that were far enough away from it so that they could, in fact, survive.
REHMSure. All right.
ROKERBut, you know, it still was rough.
REHMCaller here in Washington, D.C. Hi there, Esther, you're on the air.
ESTHERHi, Diane. Hi, Al. I thank you…
ESTHER…for taking my call.
ESTHERThis is so interesting for me because, as you said, I live now in Washington, D.C., but I did grow up in Texas. And my grandparents emigrated from Europe around the turn of the century. And their port of deportation was Galveston. And when I share my story with people now they look at me, like, in disbelief. What do you mean Galveston, a port deportation? And everyone thinks of Ellis Island. But, in fact, a lot of immigrants and, Al, you mentioned the diversity of Galveston, a lot of immigrants came in at that time during Galveston because it was the largest port in the South.
ESTHERAnd so I just think that this is so interesting. And then secondly, I wanted to mention that because this hurricane destroyed Galveston, that's the reason that New Orleans prospered as a port. Galveston was never rebuilt. So then New Orleans went on to become the major port. And so I really thank you for telling this story because I think it's not just a weather story. It's really a story of our country.
ROKERYou're absolutely right, Esther. That's a very, very good point, that it really did, I mean, there were so many different people and we chronicle their stories from a young school teacher, to a young African American girl, to the police chief of Galveston, who was a Civil War veteran. You know, there -- to a shopkeeper, to a rabbi. And everybody seemed to be part of this community and it really, the fabric of the community was literally torn apart, but then afterwards started to knit back together, you know, to try to survive. In fact, it was -- some people felt it was worth being -- worse being a survivor than being one of those who were lost.
REHMNow, she also talked about New Orleans becoming really very important after the storm. Did you follow that as well?
ROKERWell, we really focused more on Galveston trying to rebuild.
ROKERAnd it really -- over the next several years was a pretty amazing bit of engineering because not only did they build a sea wall, that started -- they started the building of it in 1902, 10 feet high, three miles long and eventually extended ten miles before it was all done in the 1960s. But they also undertook a Herculean task of literally raising the downtown, anywhere from 8 to 18 inches or more.
REHMHow did they do that?
ROKERThey -- and you have to remember, this is the early 1900s.
ROKERThey had to dig canals, basically pump in sea water and slurry to bring out the sand. They hit pilings, they buried pilings and then jacked, jacked up the buildings and put these pilings underneath and then lowered the buildings back onto the pilings. And then, you know, brought back…
ROKER…in sludge and slurry to build the -- to fill it in.
ROKERBut they had to, like, build canals to take the stuff out. I mean it was engineering just to get the engineering.
REHMHere is an email from David who wants to tap into your meteorological knowledge. "He says how does an ocean full or," he must mean of, "unorganized warm water and breezes create a very organized hurricane?"
ROKERWell, it's rotation. And it's wind currents. And you start to get a spin in the atmosphere. And as these systems, these thunderstorms build, they develop their own rotation. And they take energy from the water, the warmth of the water. And that's the fuel, if you will, for the engine. And these storms continue to build and to grow and then to organize. And they get -- they begin to develop their own rotation around that low pressure, that center area of low pressure. And that -- then you get what's called a tropical low, a tropical depression, then it moves onto a storm and eventually if the winds reach the right -- over 74 miles per hour, you now have a hurricane.
REHMAnd an email from Julian, who says, "I'm meteorologist, born and grew up in Galveston. There was one more medium in Galveston after the storm. Thomas Edison sent a film…
REHM…crew to Galveston. They had to disguise their equipment as 'survey equipment' because photography was supposed to be banned after the storm. It was some of the first news film ever shot."
ROKERYeah, in fact, it's interesting because where in a book we couldn't show that, but we do have a lot of pictures of it. But, yes, they -- we showed some of that this morning. It's what they call "paper film," because the film deteriorated. And it's -- so there were pictures of it. And then put back onto film. But, yeah, there's a -- it shows the orphanage that was destroyed. There's a panoramic shot of the bay itself and the ships and cranes knocked over. Yeah, it's pretty amazing to see that film.
REHMAnd to Lizard Lick, N.C. You're on the air, Phillip.
PHILLIPGood morning. And thank you for taking my call.
PHILLIPDiane, it's a real pleasure to talk to two national treasures.
ROKEROh, people have said they should be buried.
PHILLIPAnd, Al, I wanted to remind everybody and I'm sure that you can give us more specific examples of what heroes meteorologists are. They save hundreds of lives a year. And will, I'm sure, the technologies that you all have at your disposal make that a whole lot easier than it was back in 1900, obviously. But you and meteorologists like you save hundreds of lives every year with your alerts, your educational tips and everything that you do. And I just want to thank you for that.
ROKERWell, I appreciate that. I really do, sir. And, look, I'm just kind of the messenger. You know, like, for example, The Weather Channel, we have hundreds of hard-working meteorologists. At the National Weather Service there are thousands of folks who dedicate themselves to this. And, you know, one of the things that I think our job is, is to keep reminding people. Because as you get further and further away from a disaster, you know, like a Katrina or a Super Storm Sandy, people's memories become short.
ROKERAnd they think, well, you know, I can ride this out. And that's where -- the things that people -- the most deaths in hurricanes are not from the wind, not from rain or anything like that. It's from flooding. It's from the flooding. People get trapped. They can't get out. And once there -- there's a point of no return. They can't get out and that's when they -- we lose them. And the idea of people not evacuating, you know, they really have to evacuate. The two go hand in hand because, you know, the predominate -- the preponderance of deaths in Katrina and in Sandy were people who did not leave their homes.
REHMAnd of course we remember those horrific pictures of people up on their roofs who waited and waited for boats to come and rescue them during Katrina.
ROKERYeah, and in fairness to a lot of people in Katrina, evacuation orders were given too late. There weren't -- there wasn't the infrastructure to get people out. And I think if we learned anything that if we were to get another Katrina, that the infrastructure is there to get people out.
REHMAll right. To Chantilly, Va. Hi there, Kelly. Go right ahead.
KELLYHi. Thank you for the show. I can't wait to pass this podcast on to our university professor who leads the weather class. My great-grandparents, or great-great-grandparents, I'm sure which, they both died in that storm. And my grandpa was a little guy. And he survived. And we have grown up with stories about, you know, the aftermath and all of that.
KELLYAnd I guess at some point in time there was another storm in Galveston, like, in the '30s or '40s, because my mom talked about one time, you know, my grandfather dragging them out there, you know, through the water and getting out because he was afraid it was going to be a repeat of Galveston. And then, you know, as history repeats itself, now I understand. After he retired -- this is my grandfather.
KELLYAfter he retired in Florida on a first floor apartment on the inter-coastal, anytime there was any kind of storm, he was always, you know, calling us, saying he was evacuating. You know, it -- there wasn't a big storm, you know, my mom would say, Dad, you know, I don't think you have to go. No, no. I'm evacuating. I'm getting out, you know. And they had that...
ROKERBetter safe than sorry.
REHMOne -- yeah, absolutely. And…
ROKERIf only more people were like him.
REHMYeah. Here's an email from Charles. He says, "General Henry Martin Robert, later famous for the Rules of Order, was in charge of building the sea wall after…
REHM…the storm." Tell us about him.
ROKERWell, you know, it's very interesting in that you needed a military man to pull off something like this. And it was one of these things. It was the, I mean, look, a sea -- we had Hurricane Alicia in 1983. And it's estimated that that sea wall probably prevented $100 million worth of damage and most likely a great loss of life. But what we've seen, while that sea wall really has withstood the test of time, now with stronger storms, with ocean runs, it's not enough. In 2008, September 13, 2008, Hurricane Ike hit. And there were waves coming -- I was there. There were waves coming over that sea wall. So, yeah, it…
REHMSo what does that mean? Are the storms getting stronger?
ROKERIt's a combination of sea level rise, stronger storms and there's some sinking of the wall itself. It's not as high as it was.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Al, as a meteorologist, I have to ask you about your own thoughts on global warming and to what extent that may be affecting what's happening with the strength of these storms.
ROKERWell, I think it should be really more climate change. We're seeing our climate changing. And, yes, there is warming, but -- and we need to look at the great -- literally on a global level. You know, this past winter, you know, we had a senator on the floor of the Senate holding a snowball, talking about, well, look at this. I mean, it's April, and we've got a snowball. Where's global warming? And it's not about that. It's about a -- that's why it's called climate change. We're not just looking in our own backyard.
ROKERWe have to look globally at what happens. And so is there change going on? Absolutely. Now you can argue, is it being exacerbated by human activity? I think it's pretty widely accepted that it is. There'll be those who tell you no. And, okay. I'll give you that. Then what? Then what? Because we are living in a world where the climate is changing, where we're seeing hotter than usual. In the last 15 years the 10 hottest years have come in this decade. We're watching wetter than normal years. Some of the wettest years on record.
ROKERYet, record drought in California and the Pacific Northwest. We are seeing a change. And we're going to have to deal with it. And we have to make some changes. And the arguments are going to be what? But we've got to do something because if we don't our children and our children's are going to pay the price.
REHMWhen you say we've got to make some changes, the question is what. And from your perspective what is one change we've got to make?
ROKERWell, I think we need to limit, you know, the amount of fossil fuels we're burning. I think that's -- and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I think if we can find alternatives and put people into other forms of generating that and, you know, different industries springing up from that, I think that that's a win-win. But we have to make a -- we have to make sure nobody gets left behind. And that people who are in those other industries, excuse me, that are more fossil fuel dependent, they have to be transitioned into cleaner energy. They have to be transitioned into, you know, other jobs that are going to help our -- not only our economy, but our environment.
REHMAnd here is Japan about to turn on several nuclear power plants, which its people are not so happy with. And yet that's one form.
ROKERWell, I can understand why.
ROKERYeah, yeah, so, you know, there's got to be, you know, we've got to work on this and we've got to put the best minds, not just in this country, but around the world, into what we're going to do. And we can't do it by ourselves. It has to be a global effort. Others have to join us as well.
REHMAbsolutely. Al Roker, he is the co-host and weather anchor for NBC's "The Today Show." And author of a brand-new book. It's called "Storm of the Century," all about the Great Gulf Hurricane of 1900. Al Roker, what a pleasure to see you and to talk with you.
ROKERYou, too, Diane. Thank you, you, too.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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