GALVESTON, Texas -- In a neighborhood park on Galveston’s east end, a small crowd gathered Friday morning to plant a tree for Arbor Day.
A few dignitaries and volunteers spoke about restoring the island’s tree canopy, much of which was lost in Hurricane Ike. Galveston’s always affable Mayor Joe Jaworski offered a few remarks. Then he introduced an 80 year-old man standing in the crowd, a squinting fellow with gray hair and a hearing aid and a weathered face that looked familiar, especially to people of a certain age.
"Dan Rather, you are a legend in America," the mayor said, as he read a proclamation declaring this Arbor Day also Dan Rather Day in Galveston.
The old reporter had returned to the scene of one of his biggest stories. A half-century ago, his riveting reports from inside the Weather Bureau office in Galveston warned Texans about a monstrous storm called Hurricane Carla. He literally changed the way the world sees hurricanes, convincing Weather Bureau officials to allow the first broadcast of live radar images showing the massive storm system churning toward the Texas coastline.
"What I remember was how huge it was," Rather recalled. "That’s number one. And number two, I remember the moment when I saw for the first time the radar picture of the hurricane. It literally took my breath away."
Ghostly black-and-while television pictures preserved from that week in September 1961 show Rather, who was then news director of KHOU Channel 11, reading weather bulletins about the approaching storm.
"Evacuation should be hastened before it is too late," he said, as Galveston forecasters bustled around him. The technology was so primitive, a Weather Bureau official resorted to scrawling on a piece of paper in an attempt to teach the television audience about the now familiar pattern of rain bands swirling around a hurricane.
"I wonder if you could explain this business about the eye of the hurricane," Rather asked, knowing that people watching on television had never before seen such a thing. (He pronounced it not "HER-uh-cane" but "HER-uh-cun.")
Government officials were wary of showing radar pictures on television, especially superimposed over a map of the coastline that emphasized the mammoth storm’s size. But Rather helped persuade them it would save lives.
"I among others told them, listen, Texans have a lot of flaws and failures, they have their problems, but Texans don’t panic," he said. "Texas are hard to herd, impossible to stampede."
The ominous radar images of the hurricane churning toward the coastline played a huge role in persuading—maybe scaring—an estimated 350,000 people to evacuate their homes. At the time, it was considered the biggest weather-related evacuation in American history.
Carla may well have been the most intense Atlantic storm ever to strike the United States when it slammed into the Galveston seawall. Forecasters believe it was even more intense than the 1900 storm that killed an estimated 6,000 people in Galveston, which remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history.
And yet, only 46 people died during Carla. A government report on the storm later credited KHOU’s telecasts with saving countless lives.
It also propelled Rather into the national eye, catching the attention of Walter Cronkite, who’s reputed to recommend CBS News hire his fellow Houston reporter who was "up to his ass in water moccasins."
Today, after his contentious parting with CBS, Rather continues producing award-winning documentaries for HDNet, whose fledgling news operation he compares to the days when he pioneered television news at KHOU.
"I don’t quit," he says. "I teach my children and grandchildren Rathers don’t quit."