GALVESTON -- These ghostly black-and-while television images are preserved from a week in September 1961 when Dan Rather, then news director of KHOU Channel 11, was warning Gulf Coast residents about an approaching hurricane.
A half-century ago, his riveting reports from inside the Weather Bureau office in Galveston warned Texans about the monstrous storm called 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."
"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.
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."