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Friday, February 09, 2007

"Isaac's Storm" is a real page-turner!

Just finished reading a real page-turner by Erik Larson. Isaac's Storm is a riveting account of the great hurricane of 1900 that ravaged Galveston Island, Texas.

I'm a great admirer of Larson's research and reporting process and found this book to be filled with rich detail and personal accounts that place the reader right in the storm's path. Read my review of Devil in the White City also by Larson.

In this earlier book, Larson's main character is Isaac Cline, the weather bureau station chief in Galveston, whose job it was to predict such a storm. The Weather Bureau of the time was coming off of scandal and needed to prove its credibility with the public. However, it chose to do so by downplaying predictions to the detriment and death of more than 6,000 Galveston residents.

In the days and hours before the storm hits, the people of Galveston are excited by the prospect of the storm. Instead of turning on The Weather Channel as we would today, they head to the beach to see for themselves, at first completely unfazed by the ominous surf and sky. But then the water creeps up ever closer, ever deeper and soon it becomes a wind-driven tempest driving people to seek shelter in convents and orphanages and homes near the beach.

There's such a tension to the story that I felt myself clenching my teeth as I sped along. This is not a book to be savored slowly. It's meant to be devoured in one sitting. And its not just about a storm, it's about people's reaction (of all ages) to storms. It's a very human story.

But it's also about power.

There was a cockiness at the turn of the 20th century that lead powerful and learned men to believe they could control Mother Nature. We read about their arrogance and ineptitude and pettiness that resulted in death for so many. But overarching the entire narrative is the central character, the storm.

Larson writes of this living, breathing force, feeding off the warm water of the Gulf of Mexico and the startling low pressure system. And all the while it continues lumbering across the great uninterrupted expanse of water gaining strength and velocity to hit Galveston dead on.
"The bureau's forecasters believed the sudden easing of wind and the attendant change in direction meant the center of the storm had passed over or near Key West, and saw this as confirmation of their belief that the storm would soon be traveling up the Atlantic coastline. Once again, they tailored fact to suit their expectations. They knew just enough to believe they had nothing to fear.

But the storm did not go north.

The bureau had missed the true meaning of the wind shift at Key West. Here was an area of calm immediately adjacent to a zone of gale-force wind, in a storm that had just crossed the great mass of Cuba without losing any of its size or energy or its ability to produce biblical volumes of rain. No one knew it at the time, but the conditions at Key West provided the clearest evidence yet that the storm's architecture was changing … Where the inrushing and outpushing forced balanced, the winds began to form a circle, a gigantic carousel over the ocean.

This storm was about to open its eye."

It's hard to read such an account without seeing giant warning flashes to Hurricane Katrina. He describes Galveston as sitting in a bowl and the competing surf from the Bay and from the Gulf were overwhelming the sides of the bowl. The people, creatures and property within were like Cheerios in milk.

I was interested in learning more about Galveston today and stumbled up this site dedicated to the storm.

They didn't yet have the name that we hear so often in hurricane reporting today—storm surge. But it was clear that the city's construction left little protection from the rising swells. I read here in a conversation with Larson that the city did try to add infrastructure to lessen the impact of the damaging and deadly storm surge:
But the storm did compel the city to build a seawall, and it showed meteorologists for the first time that a hurricane's greatest threat to land comes from the storm surge it raises in the sea. What it should have taught is that nothing is certain, not ever.

What struck me, particularly after I just finished interviewing and writing a profile of New Orleans Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss, was Larson's pre-Katrina response to what Galveston has done to prepare itself for another hurricane.
"After the storm, it built a seawall, but meteorologists fear the wall may have made Galveston complacent. Most of the city's new housing is rising on land beyond the wall's protection, adjacent to little signs marking an evacuation route. I was fascinated to learn that despite satellites and hurricane-hunting aircraft and computer models, no hurricane expert thinks the days of monstrously deadly hurricanes have passed forever. Like seismologists, they believe a Big One is long overdue, and they rank Galveston as one of the most likely targets. They envision a great storm that does something unexpected -- accelerates suddenly, veers, or undergoes the kind of explosive deepening that marked the hurricane of 1900 -- and catches the city's 60,000 residents before they have a chance to evacuate or, perhaps worse, in midevacuation. Technology has produced the illusion that it has so defanged hurricanes that they'll never surprise us again. But no one who has spent any time studying hurricanes would agree."
(Bold is mine.)

A highly recommended read!


Lori said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Wendy! I, too, loved Devil in the White City and generally adore books that tell the stories behind the dry facts of "history." This one sounds like a winner.

Wendy Hoke said...

Hi Lori! If you liked Devil in the White City, you'll like this one. He's taken another very minor character from history and given him life. I also love his notes section. He writes lovingly of handling actual documents, telegrams, etc. It's a quick read!

ohdave said...

Wendy, it's always great to see what others are reading...

I write a weekly book feature that might interest you... This week I have featured Jim Harrison's new novel Returning to Earth... I try to move back and forth between fiction and political non-fiction on my site. Just whatever interests me.

Wendy Hoke said...

Thanks, Dave. NYT Book Review also featured that book yesterday. I'll check out your book feature. My reading is all over the map. Basically, as you said, whatever I find interesting.