Erik Larson's 'A True Story': The Hurricane That Devastated Galveston
The coastal city of Galveston, Texas was booming when a terrifying hurricane devastated it in 1900. Thousands of people lost their lives. Chief Meteorologist Isaac Cline had a few years earlier said the city had nothing to worry about…but he ultimately had to fight for his life and that of his family. American writer Erik Larson recounts this defining tragedy in North American history in A True Story.
On September 8, 1900, Isaac Cline sensed that something unusual was brewing in Galveston. Without waiting for permission from his superiors, he issues a weather alert. But it will be too late for thousands of people. A few hours later, a hurricane of gigantic proportions hits the region, sweeping away everything in its path.
Erik Larson, a writer who does not skimp on archival and field research, spent a lot of time writing A True Story, a story finally translated into French. It depicts the madness of men and their propensity to think they are stronger than nature.
“I became interested in this while I was working on something else. I grew up on Long Island, near New York, and have always loved hurricanes. I had read about this hurricane which killed 10,000 people and I found it incredible,” he comments in an interview.
“I started to take an interest in it and I said it would be my next book. Before the release of my book, this hurricane was fairly well known in Texas, but very little known outside of Texas.”
On the spot
Erik Larson spent a lot of time in Galveston gathering his information.
“I find it very important to go there and see what it looks like. You never know what you'll find. In Galveston, when I went to the part of the island that remained as it was in the 1900s, I understood how vulnerable it was. Today, the city is protected by 18-foot seawalls. But that did not exist in 1900: the city was at sea level.
“The western part is very developed and the houses are built on 20 foot stilts. But when you go there, you realize very quickly how close the city was built to the shore, and how dangerous it was.”
On a trip to Galveston, he happened just after a tropical storm hit.
“There was no electricity, no street lights. It gave me even more of an idea of what could have happened.”
In the archives
By rummaging through the archives, the author was able to consult weather records, read diaries kept by people.
“I went to the Rosenberg Library, which has an exceptional archive about the hurricane. I spent several days there and it was fantastic: I was able to read letters, documents, diaries.”
He discovered the role played by Isaac Cline following an unexpected.
“There is a NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] library in Suitland, Maryland. I did some research there about hurricanes and found an old satchel sticking out on a shelf in the library.”
This chance discovery gave him the focus of the book: the role played by Isaac Cline.
“I found an article there published by Isaac Cline in a local newspaper. He wrote that no hurricane would ever cause damage to Galveston, because of its location between the sea and a bay. He had it all wrong.”
- Erik Larson was born in 1954 in New York. He lives in Manhattan.
- He is the author of six books published by Le Cherche midi publisher, including Dans le jardin de la boeuf and The splendor and the infamy.
- We also owe him Lusitania 1915 and The Devil in the White City, sold 2 million copies.
“Poe watched the lighthouse. The waves crashed high against its base and occasionally tossed spray almost the entire height of the building, yet it seemed the strongest thing in sight. Except for the lighthouse, the cottages of its keepers, and here and there the top of an oak tree, there was nothing but water. With the sound of rain, it sounded like a hundred men with ball peen hammers were pounding the north face of the cars. The train stopped.”