This is Part I of a three part book review. All three books are non-fiction and each describes the history and the fate of a city. The first book deals with the hurricane portion of the 3-H title of my post.
Isaac's Storm: Erik Larson's excellent account of the hurricane of 1900 that devastated the city of Galveston has been on my mind off and on since the summer of 2005 when Katrina and Rita terrorized the gulf coasts of Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. It is the story of the biggest hurricane to make landfall in the recorded meteorological history of the United States - a storm against which all subsequent storms have been measured.
On Saturday, September 8, 1900, the morning in the coastal city of Galveston, Texas, began calmly enough. A hurricane that had been brewing off the coasts of Cuba was expected to take a northerly turn along the eastern flanks of Florida and the Carolinas - far removed from the gulf coast of Texas. Isaac Cline, the resident meteorologist stationed in Galveston, a meticulous weatherman, had been thus assured by the headquarters of the US Weather Bureau. Yet on that September morning, Isaac was troubled by what he saw - deep swells in the waters of the Texas gulf that should not have been there if the predictions from the Washington D.C. office were to be believed. Isaac had no idea how wrong the reports were and what was to be unleashed by mother nature. Before he understood the true grimness of the event and could issue a warning, residents of Galveston were blindsided by a monster storm which submerged the city in water that rose to the second floors of buildings in some areas of the island. By the time the fury of the storm was spent, 6000 men, women and children were dead. The tiny island of Galveston (built along the architectural aesthetics of New Orleans) with its ambitions of becoming the richest and most stylish city in Texas, lay in ruins. Galveston never recovered from this blow and neither did Isaac Cline, who lived out the rest of his life broken hearted and haunted that he, who had prided himself in accurately reading the sea and the sky, had been so fooled by both. But in reality, Isaac had been fooled by man as much as by nature.
Isaac's Storm is the story of a man, a storm and the city of Galveston . It is also a stern reminder that even with increasing knowledge and technology at our disposal, sometimes the only safeguard against nature's unmatched fury is to run and find safer grounds. The irony in the devastation of 1900 was that those with the superior technology had been instrumental in making the bigger blunder. The weather bureau in Havana, Cuba where the storm had made an earlier landfall, had predicted that it was headed for the Gulf of Mexico and not the Atlantic Coast as the US Weather Bureau had announced. But due to an intense and petty rivalry between the two agencies, the chief of the US bureau, a pompous man, dismissed the Cubans' warning as so much "Latin melodrama" - not to be taken seriously by cool headed, scientific minded northern folks ! It was based on this arrogant and false assurance that Cline had felt relaxed about Galveston on that fateful September day - with lethal consequences.
Larson is a gifted writer - one with the rare talent for writing lyrically about stuff such as weather charts, meteorological instruments, latitudes and longitudes. Having scoured numerous letters, telegrams, recorded testimony of survivors and rescuers, Larson has put together a weather story which is as suspenseful as a first rate mystery and as tragic as a melodramatic tear jerker. He records in excruciating details the lives of ordinary citizens going about their business just before the storm and the same lives upturned and torn asunder in its aftermath. He chronicles the history of each building that went down and those which withstood the battering. One of the most heartwrenching events depicted is the discovery of a group of young girls, students in a Catholic convent school, found dead with their teachers after the storm. The little girls were tied to each other with a rope - a safety measure deemed necessary by the nuns to prevent the girls from getting separated during evacuation. Interwoven through the account of the storm of 1900 are the history of Galveston, the world at large at the turn of the last century and the life story of Isaac Cline. Fortified with the current scientific understanding of storms, Larson spins a compelling tale which is made all the more fantastic by the realization that it is all true. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. In 2005 when Rita menaced the coast of Texas, I was reminded several times of Isaac and Galveston of 1900. In the end, Rita spared Houston and Galveston although she managed to issue a dire warning: if you live in a hurricane prone coastal area, it is only a matter of time!
I want to end with an interesting quote from Isaac explaining why he became a scientist and a weatherman instead of a preacher or a lawyer - two professions that he had considered at different times in his life.
"I first studied to be a preacher, but decided that I was too prone to tell big stories. Then I studied Blackstone for a while and soon learned that I was not adept enough at prevarication to make a successful lawyer. I then made up my mind that I would seek some field where I could tell big stories and tell the truth." - Isaac Cline
Hence meteorology and the weather!
Note: In my article I refer to Isaac Cline by his first name rather than the customary last one. I did so following author Larson's example throughout the book, as also in its title.