Saturday, August 6, 2011


When my grandmother Lois Lamar was a child, she would spend a couple months in Galveston each summer. Her father would have to stay in Austin where he worked, but he would join Lois and her mother in Galveston on weekends. Lois, born in November, 1899,  was in Glaveston for the 1909 hurricane. She told me that she and her mother left their cottage and sheltered in a brick building in the center of the city. Being a child with her mother close by for comfort, Lois slept through the worst of the storm. The adults were too nervous to sleep. The memory of the 1900 hurricane was too fresh.

I recently acquired a book about the 1900 hurricane, Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson, which tells the story from the point of view of Isaac Cline, the regional head of the U.S. Weather Bureau. A timeline of the weather bureau shows that in 1898 President McKinley ordered the bureau to establish a hurrican warning system in the West Indies. Wireless telegraph service made this possible. According to Larson's book, the Cuban meteorologists had a better understanding of hurricane behavior than their U.S. counterparts. Unfortunately, Luther Moore, national head of the U.S Weather Bureau at the time, had ruled that only U.S. meteorologists could make wireless transmissions (Cuba was under U.S. control at this time, after the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American war). The Cuban meteorolgists expected the tropical storm that made landfall in Cuba on August 27, 1900, to turn toward the west toward Texas. But Cline, in Galvestron, only received the opinions of the U.S. meteorologists, who were sure the storm would head north over Florida and up the east coast of the U.S.

There was no ship-to-shore wireless service at the time, so the residents of Galveston knew nothing of the hurricane until the storm surge hit. Even then, they still had no idea of the ferocity of the storm. Isaac Cline stayed with his wife an children in their home just 3 blocks from the beach. By the time the eye wall made landfall, it was far too late to seek shelter. Cline's house was demolished by a steel rail road trestle, its inhabitants flung into 20 foot deep, debris-loaded water.

The hurricane remains the United States' deadliest natural disaster. 6000 - 8000 people died that night, and the city, which had been so beautiful the day before, was a pile of rubble and rotting corpses of humans, horses, dogs, cats, chickens, cattle, and wild animals.

There are many variables associated with weather events, some of them quite subtle. Even with satellite images that allow storms to be tracked at the level of meters and even centimeters, no one can accurately predict when a group of thunderstorms will become a tropical depression, nor can anyone say with any degree of certainty whether or not a troical depression will become larger and stronger.

The weather in the southern U.S. in 1900 was unusually warm, as it has been this year. For the areas 100 miles or more inland from the coast, the hurricane would have brought relief from the heat, as a major hurricane this year would bring relief from the drought. 

I grew up in Houston and lived through several hurricanes, the most notable of which was Carla in 1961. I made a sail from wood scraps and a sheet, put on my roller skates, and let the wind push me down the street (what were my parents thinking, to let me do such a thing???). We filled the bathtub, and glass jugs, with water, in case we lost water service. The electricity went out, and neighbors gathered at my friend Beth's house, because her family had a gas cook stove. The streets flooded, and we kids made rafts. I remember it all as good fun. But we were more than 50 miles in from the coast, and only the streets flooded, not our houses. The scariest storm I've experienced was when I was first building the house at Altamira. I had built only a small cabin at the time, and there was no siding yet on two of the walls, just a plastic tarp. There was a metal roof that amplified the sound of the storm. The rain beat down, and the wind blew fiercely and there was almost constant thunder. It was difficult to distinguish the roar of the wind from the crash of thunder. In the morning, a large oak tree about 20 yards from my cabin had been twisted until its trunk broke. A small tornado, I guess. 

I must be thinking of storms because I long so much for rain. I have to go to Tilmon today to water the few remaning trees that have not been killed by grasshoppers: a sophora (Texas Mountain Laurel), 4 loblolly pines, a magnolia (bad grasshopper damage but still hanging on), 3 roses bushes (damaged but still alive), two turk's caps (for some reason, the grasshoppers leave these alone), and vetiver grass, which the grasshoppers don't touch. Vetiver blades have sharp edges, which I think must put the grasshoppers off. These days I dread going there. With the oil well, the grasshoppers, the drought, it's like descending into the outer chambers of hell.