NEW YORK — Al Roker’s new book, “The Storm of the Century,” reads like a blockbuster movie script, but the “Today” show weatherman said the drama, heartache and strife of the Great Hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston, Texas, is all too real.
“This is still the greatest natural disaster to hit the United States, even after all this time,” Roker told The Associated Press in a recent interview.
Out Tuesday, the book comes a few weeks before the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 25. Roker said natural disasters have become stronger and stronger and the book is a reminder of the damage that can come.
“I think human nature is that we can handle whatever comes our way,” Roker said. “But I think, as our environment is changing, I think we have to rethink that, and that certain ways of life and certain places we live may not be feasibly habitable for much longer and hard choices are going to have to be made.”
To create the narrative, Roker uses newspaper clippings, oral histories and archival records to piece together the devastation of the island city once called the “Paris of the Gulf Coast.”
The book describes the seaport as a town leading the U.S. into the 20th century. Its population was diverse and progressive, streets were lined with new electric lamps and business was booming from a shipping trade that passed through the popular tourist destination.
“In 1900, Galveston had more millionaires per capita than any other city in America. … It had so much going for it,” Roker said. “It also had a lot of hubris and a lot of pride to its own detriment.”
Roker eases readers into the Sept. 8 evening of doom by weaving in the story of Galveston’s development and descriptions of the U.S. media and political landscape. He also creatively loops in the backstories of several townspeople, including a weatherman, young schoolteacher and a single mother — all of whom believed a storm like this could never happen.
“These desperate characters (are) all kind of being united by this one natural disaster that will change their lives forever. Some of them survive and some of them don’t,” Roker said.
It took just a few hours for the storm, which would be considered a Category 4 today, to consume Galveston with its 200 mph winds and 15-foot waves, Roker writes. He estimates 10,000 people were killed and more than $700 million in damage was done in today’s dollars.
Among the human faces Roker puts on the disaster is a young lawyer, Clarence Howth, who was trapped under his house by the storm after watching his wife, Marie, newborn baby and other relatives swept away. Howth tried to take his own life by gulping the raging water but ultimately couldn’t bring himself to do it. He managed to free himself and surface, but was swept away by currents and spent 10 hours clinging to a broken window frame until the waters receded and he found himself back in town, where it all began, Roker writes.
This is the first time Roker dives into a weather event for a book. The New York Times best-selling author came across the Great Hurricane of 1900 while doing other research. He said he teamed up with researcher Bill Hogeland to produce the work and was inspired by other books, including Erik Larson’s “Isaac’s Storm.”
Roker, who also hosts the Weather Channel’s “Wake Up With Al,” said he is working on another book about the Johnstown Flood that devastated the Pennsylvanian town in 1889, and he may even reach further back in time for his next weather event.
“I haven’t even researched it and who knows if it’s true but the ultimate disaster story is Noah’s Ark,” Roker said.