If I had managed to stomach all the math, I would have been a meteorologist. As it is I am an avid weather-watcher, I love watching meteorologists get all hyped up about weather systems, but there are some storms that as you watch them form and become more powerful that you get a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.  I remember watching the run-up to Hurricane Ike in Texas and  seeing people on the news saying “Oh it won’t be that bad. It’s not like it is as big as Katrina.” and then listening to the forecasters warn get out of the way!  And yes the hurricane wasn’t as bad as Katrina in terms of strength but it had a monster storm surge and swallowed up whole peninsulas on the Texas Gulf coast and washed away houses that people swore couldn’t be washed away… and took people with it, who were never found again.

Hurricane Ike turned out to be the third most costly hurricane in US history (after Katrina and Andrew) and it was “only” a Category two storm. What it showed was how much trust people put in modern technology, and how much denial that they piled on, thinking that sometime horrible couldn’t happen to them. Sad but true. And this is a story that is repeated over and over again– and is the focus of Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History.

Larson’s book focuses on the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, which killed somewhere between 8,000-12,000 people, and on the local meteorologist Isaac Cline, who was responsible for warning the island’s residents, but who failed to see the signs that the hurricane was coming their way. This is also a story of America’s Gilded Age belief in Progress and Modernity, and that mankind was above nature, and could in some way control it. It also outlines the politics and ethnocentrism of the period, as the Cubans accurately predicted the hurricane and tried to warn the US, but the US (who viewed Cuba as lazy and their forecasting techniques as based on “superstition”) refused to head Cuba’s warning. The result was utter carnage.

Larson does a fantastic job painting a picture of the local politics of Galveston and meteorology at the time. He also does a wonderful job actually re-creating the events for the reader, in vivid detail. You get a sense of dread as the islanders continue on with daily life despite a monster storm surge and the angry Gulf that washed into their front yards preceding the hurricane. Galveston was, after all, a boomtown during this period, and its citizens were not going to let a little storm slow them down.

The events unfold almost in slow motion. Those who survive were in parts lucky, or among the few that had access to strong, sturdy masonry buildings several stories high and well away from the coast. And in 1900, once the telegraph lines went down, and the train tracks washed out, no one knew. For days no one knew what had happened to Galveston until people walked in and found a virtual hell on earth. So many dead that the authorities were forced to burn the bodies. So much destruction that they simply bulldozed whole acres of the city. The scenes that Larson describe are out of an apocalypse.

Except that these kinds of scenes have happened again,  and again, in modern periods. One memory from watching the hurricane coverage of Katrina that has stuck with me all these years was the interview of a woman who lived in an ocean-side condo in MS. When the surge came up and wiped out her well-built condo she was washed inland, along with her dog, a small black terrier. She was lucky, and managed to climb up into a tree and hung on for the rest of the night, one arm holding onto the tree and one arm holding onto her dog. As she talked to the reporter she seemed amazed that both she and her dog managed to survive a monster storm in a tree and all she had left were the clothes on her back, badly lacerated hands, and her dog.

In the end Mother Nature is greater than us. No amount of technology will ever made us safe from storms and other disasters. That is something that we need to understand and come to terms with, and Larson’s book a fabulous reminder as to why– a hundred years ago, Americans were brash enough to think they could understand and predict deadly storms. A hundred years later, we still think that, yet we continue to suffer. Will we ever learn?

Ciao for now,

Bookish C