Well-known TV meteorologist Al Roker, cohost and weather anchor of NBC's Today show and cohost of the Weather Channel's Wake Up with Al, covers major storms all over the country. In 2005, while covering Hurricane Rita in Galveston, Tex., everyone talked about the most disastrous hurricane in the country's history, which hit the area in 1900, killing 10,000 people and causing millions of dollars worth of damage. Roker says, "It was one of those things that you file away in the back of your mind. I've always been a fan of Eric Larson, who's about as good as it gets when it comes to taking an event and making it live. I always thought it would be cool to do something like that."
And so he has. The Storm of the Century (Morrow, Aug.) delves into the impact this cataclysmic event had on a major metropolis on the Gulf Coast. "It's a really sprawling story—there are all these parts that come together. You love for an historical event to be fascinating with such amazing characters that it almost reads like fiction."
The competition for newspaper supremacy between the two great newspaper figures of the time, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, especially caught Roker's attention. "William Randolph Hearst sends in this fantastic reporter, Winifred Black. She originally wanted to be in the theater and used those talents to get the story. She disguised herself as a guy—as one of the relief workers going into Galveston when the word gets out about this disaster— because nobody is allowed in except people who are going to help rebuild. She literally gets out the first story and begins filing exclusive reports. Meanwhile, Joseph Pulitzer enlists Clara Barton of the Red Cross to organize the relief effort and charters a train, complete with disaster relief workers and reporters, to get into the area."
Roker points out that 1900 weather forecasting and politics played a role in what happened. "There were no weather satellites or radar. There were weather balloons and barometric readings, the basics. And in the Caribbean, you had to rely on information from Cuba, which had the most advanced telegraphic network in the area. But due to some political issues and professional jealousies after the Spanish-American war, the War Department and the U.S. Weather Bureau shut down the telegraph lines leading from Cuba to the United States. Cuba actually forecast that the hurricane would strike somewhere within a 100-mile vicinity of Galveston. But the U.S. Weather Bureau didn't have that data and thought the storm would follow the normal curve out of the Caribbean over Florida, jump along the Atlantic coast and pass harmlessly out to sea. Had they allowed the Cuban forecast to come out, it would have saved thousands of lives."
You can learn more from the man himself. Roker is hosting the invitation-only Ninth Annual BEA Adult Librarians' Dinner at the Yale Club tonight at 6:30. Earlier, he signs galleys in the ticketed autographing area at 3 p.m. at Table 3.
This article appeared in the May 27, 2015 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.