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Reviewing the Storm of the Century

A review of Al Roker's Storm of the Century
Storm of the Century by Al Roker
As the co-editor of Through a Night of Horrors: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm, whenever a new book is published about the 1900 Storm, fiction or non-fiction, someone in my family calls to ask my opinion. So when Al Roker released “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,” earlier this year I added it to my “must read” list.

Right away, the cover evokes the century-old sensationalist journalism publications of the past, with a long descriptive title; however, I like the use of Kurz & Allison’s 1900 lithograph, Galveston's Awful Calamity - Gulf Tidal Wave, September 8th 1900.

It’s an easy read for me and while it isn’t a great work of literature, it’s not the worst I’ve read about the 1900 Storm. Overall, the book contains sloppy editing and it’s rife with minor errors that likely few would notice. Irritating Texas and Galveston history errors aside, Roker brings the Night of Horrors to life and summarizes the recovery of the city.

As one familiar with hundreds of the individual stories, I’m always interested in how authors manage to select several individual stories from the many and follow them into a narrative.  
(In my opinion, the best of these is and shall remain, John Edward Weems’ A Weekend in September. If you are interested in the 1900 Galveston Storm, this book is a must read.)

I realize that very few others will read this book with the original source material readily in mind, or at hand for consideration and comparison, but I readily catch sloppy editing and errors. For example, on page 170, Roker writes that Lloyd Fayling is sent to escort prominent Galvestonians to Austin. The escort was to Houston. Although not a massive error, it does slight the timeline and interrupt the flow.

It’s evident the ways Mr. Roker (born, reared, and educated in New York) inserted his own viewpoint or bias into the story. Where I interpret firsthand accounts one way, he has interpreted them another and used specific adjectives to twist their meaning to fit his point of view.

For example, in the original firsthand account, Fayling writes that upon being kicked out of their hotel rooms, “The drummers were very indignant and swore in eighteen languages, mostly Hebrew.

Roker translates this as, “There, backed by soldiers, he persuaded the proprietor to boot out a bunch of peddlers and salesmen – ‘mostly Hebrew,’ Fayling sniffed – who had rooms on the parlor floor.”

To my mind, the original phrase doesn’t imply Fayling “sniffed” at anything. He merely noted that the men being kicked out of their rooms swore in eighteen languages. While I read “eighteen” and consider it an exaggeration, I find nothing negative in describing the languages as “mostly Hebrew.”

More importantly, Roker’s is the first compilation narrative to draw out a first-hand narrative from the African-American perspective, relying on an oral history collected by Izola Collins that was not available to us in 2000. It’s valuable because the story of African-American’s in Galveston in 1900 cannot be reduced to sweeping generalizations, but must be studied from the individual context of specific families and how they related and created a varied mosaic within society. Authors both use their own filter of experience to identify with and latch onto specific stories, and also - because they’re weaving an exciting tale - are drawn to the more lurid or shocking pieces.

Another small point of Roker's book is very gratifying. Where Erik Larsen assigned blame for the failed advance warnings on hubristic (Larsen’s adjective) local forecaster Isaac Cline, Roker adeptly addresses the development of weather forecasting as a science, applicable scientific theory and data collection of the era, and delves into the internal politics of the national office Weather Bureau.  There is no overt slander of Isaac or Joseph Cline in Roker’s book. For that, I thank him.

Roker’s book also brings to life another issue rarely seen among 1900 Storm narratives: the one-upmanship between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in not only reporting the Storm, but also raising donations for support. Had he included Thomas’ Edison’s fait accompli of sneaking an assistant onto the island with a moving picture camera on the island, the trifecta would be complete.

With all this in mind, go read the book and let me know what you thought. Did any story in particular stand out to you? Let me know and I'll point you to the original primary source document. I promise there are so many more stories just waiting to be discovered!

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