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Alum Does Book On Galveston Storm

Kim Hubenak By Cheryl Joy Allman/The Huntsville Item

August 31, 2000

One hundred years ago today, a monster was brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, rounding the corner south of Cuba to head northward toward the Gulf Coast. It was picking up speed at an astronomical rate, feeding off warm waters that were a product of an intensely hot, Gulf Coast summer.

Ron Rozelle, Sam Houston State University alumnus and winner of the 2000 Texas Review Fiction Prize, recounts what happened next by way of a series of chilling survivor tales in his new book, The Windows of Heaven, which has just been released by Texas Review Press.

"It started raining after midnight," begins the prologue of Rozelle's new novel about the great Galveston hurricane. "People inside the saloons - sailors and dock workers and whores - paid no attention to the steadily quickening tattoo being pelted out on the tin sheets or slates of the roofs, but kept to the business at hand."

There was no reason for the residents of Galveston to panic - no reason that was obvious to them at the time.

Weather wires on Sept. 6 indicated the storm was northwest of Key West and causing damage in Florida. Advisories were issued as far west as Louisiana and as far north as Massachusetts, but the Texas coast was excluded. By the following afternoon, however, after a sudden shift to the west, the storm was barreling toward the Texas coast, and the small, unprotected island lay right in its path.

Within 48 hours, visitors and residents of Galveston would bear the brunt of 150-mph winds and a tidal surge that brought flood waters to 15.7 feet, completely submerging the island, destroying more than 3,500 buildings and killing between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

The most devastating natural disaster ever to strike the United States, the 1900 storm literally swept much of the island clean of buildings and human life. Recovery of bodies continued for more than six months, and many skeletal remains were found even years later as cleanup and rebuilding of the island proceeded.

Rozelle's account, partly fictionalized but based primarily in historical fact, explores the horror and the redemption experienced by those who survived the fury of the storm and those who lost their lives, homes and families to it.

The novel follows, in particular, two well-documented stories from the storm: that of Weather Bureau assistant meteorologist Joseph Cline and his brother Isaac - who recorded the storm as it approached and nearly lost their lives to it - and the story of the Sisters of Charity seaside orphanage, where all 10 nuns and 90 of the 93 children in residence lost their lives as the buildings collapsed under the weight of the storm's surge. Three boys, the only survivors from the orphanage, escaped a collapsing dormitory and clung to an uprooted tree until flood waters subsided.

Rozelle first became fascinated with the history of the storm when he visited Galveston as a boy. He said his preoccupation with the stories he heard led him back to the island where he conducted research on the storm in the Rosenberg Library, and from there, the novel began to take shape.

"All of the years that I was growing up we had one vacation a year and that was on Galveston Island," he said. "Even then, as a little boy, I would pick up snippets on the island of the storm so long, long ago. In those days, there were many people who had survived it."

Rozelle said that while he had heard the stories and harbored a deep connection to what he heard, he didn't know many of the details or understand the full depth of those stories until he began his research for his second novel. In the process of trying to decide on a story line, he said he remembered the story of the 1900 storm. He then began reading accounts and digging for more information on the hurricane and those who had survived.

"I didn't really learn anything about this until five or six years ago, though I was always aware of it," he said.

"It is a gripping story. Once I got my teeth into it I was immersed. I started reading historical accounts of the storm, and it was really the orphanage that tugged at my heart. I've really felt an obligation to those children and the sisters to know their story."

Rozelle said he believes it is the tragedy of the story that propels it so deeply into the minds of those who hear it and the ultimate helplessness of its victims that distinguishes it from most other stories of human suffering and triumph.

"This is a storm that has just lived on and on," he said. "In the story of The Perfect Storm those people went out and took their chances with the sea, but for the people in Galveston, the sea came to them. That was the real tragedy of it."

After writing nearly 700 pages and revising his manuscript six times, Rozelle said he told the part of the story that mattered most to him. Still, he said, he had some concerns over telling it, since he was sensitive to the people of Galveston and what they had endured.

"It's a story about people I didn't know," he said. "I felt a little alienated, a bit like an interloper, because I wasn't born on the island. I tried to give respect to them, to their story, to their resilience. I want to make that clear. It is, for me, about the resilience of the human spirit. The rich people opened their homes to those who had lost everything, and they all went on living, they did what they could to come back."

Rozelle will be observing the anniversary of the storm in much the same way as the modern-day character in the last chapter of his book. He will be at the site of the Sisters of Charity seaside orphanage where 69th Street meets Seawall Boulevard in Galveston on Sept. 9, and tonight he will be part of a panel of speakers at the Brazoria County Museum in Angleton as part of a historic program on the storm.

While working on the book has been a great experience for him, Rozelle said his association with the Texas Review Press has been the real treat, since he is a loyal alumnus of SHSU and the second of three generations of his family to attend the university.

"It was simply a stroke of luck that we ended up with the manuscript," said Paul Ruffin, director of the Texas Review Press. He said Rozelle's agent had tried unsuccessfully for some time to place the novel with several New York publishing houses.

"It wasn't that the publishers didn't find the manuscript well-done," Ruffin said. "The problem was that none of them felt that they could get the book out by Sept. 8, 2000 - the 100-year anniversary of the storm."

Ruffin said Rozelle, whose memoir, Into That Good Night, garnered rave reviews after its publication by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in 1998, knew that the Texas Review Press publishes at least one Texas book a year, and he called Ruffin to ask whether the press might be interested in taking a look at The Windows of Heaven.

"It was a bit of a bet," Ruffin said, "since we hadn't read the manuscript and since we could see the bottom slats in our budget barrel, but we knew that whatever Ron had written was good - his agent had already convinced us of that through a series of letters of rejection from New York publishers - so we went begging for some extra funding, which Academic Vice President David Payne's office graciously helped us with, and we took it on."

Ruffin called on Kellye Sanford, another SHSU graduate and a free-lance book designer and illustrator, to design the cover for the book, which features photographs taken in Galveston before and after the devastation.

"Kellye has been a real treasure for me and for Paul," Rozelle said. "Her book covers are just beautiful."

Rozelle has made a number of appearances at major bookstores in the Houston area and in Galveston recently, and he is slated as a featured reader at the Texas Book Festival in Austin in November.

The press has bought paperback rights to Into That Good Night and plans to release the book by Nov. 1, Ruffin said. Rozelle will make a Huntsville appearance at the annual Texas Review Press fund-raising event to be held at the Walker Education Center in December, and copies of The Windows of Heaven and Into That Good Night (paperback) will be available that evening.

- Cheryl Joy Allman can be reached at (936) 295-5407, ext. 3022 or by e-mail at

- END -

SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
August 31, 2000
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