Friday, September 08, 2006

106 Years Later

In what seems to have become a season of remembrance, I wanted especially to note the often overlooked anniversary of the greatest natural disaster in America's history, the Galveston hurricane of 1900 that killed over 6,000 people on this date.

Last year, I read a fantastic book about it that augmented my own thoughts about Katrina without overwhelming me into catatonia with fresh miseries. The non-fiction account, Isaac's Storm, which reads like a novel through Erik Larson's talent, has several amazing and meaningful parallels with current events, and illuminates what we've since learned about killer storms within the context of a fascinatingly turbulent era and its personalities. I thought the book was so captivating and good (and such a terrific way even for scaredy-cats like me to confront the painful subject of Katrina and her human costs), I wrote a review for an outlet that declined to use it, the fools. I repost it here for your edification, and to commemorate this anniversary.
Keep your powder dry!


Common wisdom would dictate the larger an event, the more hindsight is required to tell its story with clarity. However, that prudence won’t satisfy our urgent curiosity or help inform our immediate decisions. As a cataclysmic hurricane season closes and we mourn the Gulf Coast’s ravaged beauty, culture, and commerce, we begin discussing as individuals and as a nation how best to live amid the potential for the worst. Looking back a century, Isaac’s Storm offers an excellent vantage point from which to begin the conversation.

Erik Larson became a national bestseller with his non-fiction narrative, The Devil in the White City. Published earlier, Isaac’s Storm is also non-fiction set in the Gilded Age, but its topic is a hurricane, the deadliest storm in U.S. history that killed over six thousand people in the boomtown of Galveston, Texas in 1900. Here, Larson has crafted another compelling, true story of technological hubris, miscalculation, and consequential tragedy.

Lest we imagine the world of a century ago as a simple, idyllic place, the author reminds us of the contemporary context: the Boxer Rebellion rages in China; Britain is embroiled in the Boer War; Italy’s King Umberto has been assassinated by an anarchist; the Bubonic Plague has reappeared; and American life is being inexorably, irreversibly transformed by new technology, communication, and electricity crackling from coast to coast.

Isaac Cline, ambitious student and fan of Jules Verne, seeks a scientific career where he can “tell big stories and tell the truth,” so he joins the U.S. Signal Corps, today the National Weather Service. In 1882, there is popular skepticism about the possibility of ever reliably predicting weather, ongoing debate about the mission of the Corps, and its financial manager has embezzled a quarter million dollars, escaped from custody, and still roams at large. Into this maelstrom of controversy and scandal arrives a fledgling meteorologist who’ll have to drill on horseback with a cavalry saber before they’ll let him near a barometer or telegraph transmitter.

At his various weather station postings, Isaac is frequently burdened with lazy and corrupt staff, yet he distinguishes himself while also graduating from medical school, teaching Sunday school, and confronting the real Wild West. After marrying, he becomes the chief meteorologist for Galveston, the nation’s third busiest port. His brother, another meteorologist, is also stationed there, creating a thorny, professional rivalry with fateful results. Undeniably intelligent and industrious, Isaac is prone to dandyism and vanity. He asserts with unconditional confidence, and despite ominous precedents, that Galveston is invulnerable to extreme weather and requires no protective seawalls. His opinion, bolstered by the prevailing science and his own popularity, is proof enough for the city’s leadership.

The book’s quick pace is maintained by interleaving the biographical with explanations of hurricane formation, the strange and fantastic history of weather science, and a litany of incredible cyclones. Anecdotes are fascinating and smoothly integrated, and Larson’s descriptions are richly evocative, as when Isaac’s hurricane is born in a late summer sunrise over the African highlands:

The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey.

Appallingly, advance storm warnings are withheld as the weather bureau politicks and feuds over turf with Cuban forecasters. Meanwhile, the most chilling event unfolds, the evolution of a monstrous hurricane charting an unexpected course. Isaac is surprised. The unwary city is deluged.

Following individual survivors, the storm’s fury is relived in scenes as freakish as wrenching. Placid beaches become menacing, venomous snakes fill the treetops, those accused of hysteria are proved unhappily prescient, and those gleefully spectating realize the severity of their peril. The terror is heartbreaking as families struggle in rising water that fills their attics, forcing them onto torn doors and porches as rafts. Roaring winds propel shingles that slice like scimitars, and people are battered and punctured by the wreckage of broken households. We glimpse intimately the harsh penalties for even small mistakes in hazardous times. Copious public and private accounts bear witness to the grievous aftermath of catastrophe.

The disaster of 1900 caused reassessment of many meteorological assumptions and the acknowledgement of the danger of tidal surges. Though huge seawalls were eventually constructed, Galveston never recovered its previous stature. The millionaire entrepreneurs and national firms had relocated to oil-rich Houston.

It may be decades before we understand all of the effects of 2005’s hurricane season, but if today you’re interested in a thorough, well-written, and gripping book on the general topic- one that’s almost eerie in its resonance with current themes- I recommend Isaac’s Storm.

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