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CNN's John Zarrella: 100 year anniversary of the Galveston hurricane

(CNN) -- September 8 marked the 100th anniversary of the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. A Category 4 hurricane swept over Galveston, Texas one century ago, killing 8,000 men, women and children and destroying nearly three-quarters of the island city. The city is dedicating a memorial to the victims and survivors on September 9 as part of the commemoration of this tragic event.

John Zarrella is CNN's Miami bureau chief. He covered Hurricane Andrew in Florida for the network.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining our discussion, John Zarrella, and welcome!


John Zarrella: My pleasure to be joining you from Galveston, Texas.

Chat Moderator: Please tell us about the 100th anniversary of the Galveston Hurricane.

John Zarrella: Well, it was 100 years ago today that Galveston, Texas was taken by surprise by what turned out to be the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. Some 8,000 Galvestonians died, most of them swept away by the storm surge that covered the entire island. Today, for the first time in 100 years, the city is holding remembrances at several locations.

Chat Moderator: What events were scheduled to commemorate the victims of the storm?

John Zarrella: The first event took place this morning when a wreath was placed at the site where St. Mary's Orphanage used to be. During the Galveston hurricane, the orphanage was wiped off the face of the earth. At the time, there were 93 children and 10 Sisters of Charity at the orphanage. Of those, only three boys survived.

There was also a memorial mass this morning and this evening there will be a candlelight vigil at a local high school football stadium. Tomorrow will be the dedication of a monument to the victims and survivors of what is known as the Great Galveston Hurricane.

Chat Moderator: Why did the Galveston hurricane go down in history? Was it truly so much worse than others, that we remember it 100 years later?

John Zarrella: It goes down in history because of the incredible loss of life. Eight thousand people is, by far, the most people ever killed in the U.S. by any natural disaster. So simply in terms of sheer loss of life, it is an event that had immeasurable impact on the people here at the time. And now, 100 years later, they are commemorating this great tragedy.

Question from Tider: John, what is the mood of the people in Galveston like today?

John Zarrella: Well, most of the people -- in fact, everyone in Galveston -- can't really relate to what happened then other than through stories told by relatives or descendants. So it is an event that, for most, they are detached from. Perhaps part of the reason for this detachment is that until this anniversary, Galveston never commemorated the event. In fact, on the 50th anniversary of the hurricane, there was only a brief mention of it in the Galveston newspaper. It was so traumatic an event that for 100 years, Galvestonians had a tough time dealing with it.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: Are there relatives of the victims and survivors taking part in the ceremonies?

John Zarrella: In fact, there are a few. The son of one of the orphans who survived in the orphanage disaster participated in the wreath laying today. He talked of how his father tried in vain to hold on to his father's younger brother as they clung to a tree, but he lost him in the swirling waters below. And then he talked of how this particular event really gave him a better understanding, a better link to what his father had endured 100 years ago.

We also are just returning from interviewing a 104-year-old woman, so she was 4-years-old at the time of the hurricane. She talks with remarkable eloquence about how they were taken by surprise when the storm hit. The people simply had no idea how bad it was going to be.

So there are descendants and there are survivors, the few survivors who remain alive today who have been brought into these ceremonies marking this anniversary.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: John, were there any heroes that day in Galveston?

John Zarrella: There were many heroes in Galveston that day. In fact, talking to historians and writers who have studied this event, most of them say that the greatest heroes were mothers and fathers who saved the lives of their children by tying them to trees or floating out windows on mattresses, holding their children. In essence, nearly everyone who survived the hurricane was, in some way, a hero.

There were a few who received particular attention. Joseph Corthell and his three stepbrothers went out repeatedly in a rowboat rescuing people who were drowning in the waters. They are credited with saving some 200 lives.

Historians will tell you that Cuban meteorologists could and should have been heroes because they warned the fledgling U.S. Weather Service at the time that a bad storm had moved over Cuba and was heading into the Gulf. But, for a lot of reasons, the U.S. Weather Service dispelled the opinions of the Cuban meteorologists. If, somehow, the Cubans had pushed and forced the issue that the storm was moving into the Gulf, the great disaster might have been avoided. But no one in the U.S. Weather Service was interested in listening to the Cuban meteorologists.

Chat Moderator: Any final thoughts for our audience?

John Zarrella: I think that while a disaster of that magnitude is not likely to happen again in this country, at least not from a hurricane, it is certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that some day there will again be a tremendous loss of life from a hurricane that strikes a major U.S. city. While we have plenty of warning now that did not exist in 1900, there are, at the same time, tens of millions more people living in harm's way.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us, John Zarrella.

John Zarrella: As always, it is a great pleasure to be able to chat with our audience.

John Zarrella joined the News Chat via telephone from Galveston, Texas. provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Friday, September 8, 2000.

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Hurricane that wrecked Galveston was deadliest in U.S. history
September 7, 2000

The Galveston Hurricane

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