Erik Larson, a contributor to Time magazine, is the author of two previous books, Lethal Passage (Crown, 1994) and The Naked Consumer (Henry Holt, 1992). In one of his past lives, Larson wrote quirky features and major investigative reports for the Wall Street Journal, including -- when he was still single -- a front-page story about a video-dating service, which got him 500 letters, a girlfriend, and a couple of marriage proposals. He has written for a variety of national magazines, including Harper's and Atlantic Monthly. His research for The Naked Consumer became the subject of a NOVA documentary, We Know Where You Live.

Larson grew up in Freeport, Long Island in the peak hurricane years of the late 1950s and 1960s, surviving one major hurricane and a few smaller ones -- if only barely, given his passion for swimming at Jones Beach right before and after each storm. He adores thunderstorms, high wind, excessive rain, deep fog, and extreme cold.

In the years since his departure from Long Island, he has lived in Bristol, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, San Francisco (twice), Baltimore (twice), and, finally, Seattle, where he finds that the weather just exactly suits his bleak Scandinavian outlook and where his kids actually complain that there isn't enough rain. He studied Russian history at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated summa cum laude in 1976. After a year off, in which he made the mistake of seeing the movie All the President's Men, he attended the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, graduating in 1978. His first newspaper job was with The Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pennsylvania, where he wrote about murder, witches, environmental poisons, and other equally pleasant things.

He has taught nonfiction writing at San Francisco State University and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and has spoken to audiences from coast to coast. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, three guinea pigs, and a goldfish named Joey.

Author Q&A

How did you first hear about the storm? What made you want to write about it?

I had begun looking into a turn-of-the-century murder, when I turned the page of an old newspaper and saw banner headlines about the storm and some amazingly clear black-and-white photographs showing devastation that evoke photographs of postbomb Hiroshima. I was instantly captivated. This storm was the most lethal natural disaster in American history, with a death toll far greater than the combined toll of the Johnstown Flood and the San Francisco Earthquake, but no one seemed to have heard of it. I wondered how any hurricane could have done so much damage and killed so many people, and why it had not happened before and since. Of course, it helped that I'm a foul-weather junkie, the kind of guy who checks into a coastal country inn when the weather turns lousy and sees power outages as romantic. I grew up on Long Island, fearing and adoring hurricanes. The fear came from the fact that I lived in a glass house surrounded by some wonderful old trees. I didn't want the house to get broken, I didn't want my climbing trees to fall. I loved the anticipation-like the best horror movies, when bad things lurk unseen in the dark. How could the greatest hurricane in American history not be alluring?

But there's another aspect: The storm opened a fresh window to Isaac's time. It showed how people really lived, how their homes looked, how communications and transportation really worked. It also shed light on America's long fascination, even obsession, with weather, one still evident today in the passion with which people-okay, mostly male people-watch the Weather Channel, especially in hurricane season. There is nothing more compelling than the slow advance of a monster storm-the gradual rise of the sea, the horizon gone black, the fitful wind turning leaves bottom up. His story shows, too, that there was a lot more to the weather bureau than checking barometers. Isaac lived in a world of sexual scandal, Wild West gunplay, jealousy, and conflict that goes against the common perception of weathermen as tame gray bureaucrats.

Why did you find Isaac Cline so fascinating?

He embodied the hubris that so marked the last turning of the centuries, when America believed it could do whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted, and could override even nature. I saw in his story something bigger that resonated with today-the inevitable clash between technological certitude and nature, the last great uncontrollable force. There was something appealing about his confidence and about the confidence of the time. People seemed to know who they were and where they were going, and they saw only a great, bright century ahead. I also felt a kinship with Isaac. He, like me, was a father of three daughters. I came to his story as a parent, wondering how he and so many other mothers and fathers in Galveston felt as the wind and sea rose and made death seem inevitable.

How does the lagacy of the storm continue to affect the culture of Galveston today?

Maybe I'm imagining it, but I sense a deep seam of sorrow in Galveston for the way things have turned out. It was such a glittering little city in 1900, with the promise of becoming another San Francisco or New Orleans. Now the city's most treasured landmarks are those that existed before the storm. The city has gone from one that looked forward to one that sees its happiest times in the past. But the storm did compel the city to build a seawall, and it showed meteorologists for the first time that a hurricane's greatest threat to land comes from the storm surge it raises in the sea. What it should have taught is that nothing is certain, not ever.

What has Galveston done to prepare itself for another hurricane?

After the storm, it built a seawall, but meteorologists fear the wall may have made Galveston complacent. Most of the city's new housing is rising on land beyond the wall's protection, adjacent to little signs marking an evacuation route. I was fascinated to learn that despite satellites and hurricane-hunting aircraft and computer models, no hurricane expert thinks the days of monstrously deadly hurricanes have passed forever. Like seismologists, they believe a Big One is long overdue, and they rank Galveston as one of the most likely targets. They envision a great storm that does something unexpected -- accelerates suddenly, veers, or undergoes the kind of explosive deepening that marked the hurricane of 1900 -- and catches the city's 60,000 residents before they have a chance to evacuate or, perhaps worse, in midevacuation. Technology has produced the illusion that it has so defanged hurricanes that they'll never surprise us again. But no one who has spent any time studying hurricanes would agree.

 

 


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