Sunday, August 27, 2017

"Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson

As Texas battened down its hatches in anticipation of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Harvey this weekend, I was reminded of a relevant book that's long been sitting in my "to be read" pile. The time seemed right to finally read "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History" by Erik Larson, author of such other titles as "The Devil in the White City," "Dead Wake" and "In the Garden of Beasts" (all also in my TBR pile...!).  

"Isaac's Storm" tells the story of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900, killing an estimated 6,000 people. It's still considered the deadliest hurricane in American history.  The story is told through the eyes and experiences of some of the survivors -- in particular, Isaac Monroe Cline, head meteorologist for the fledgling U.S.Weather Bureau's Galveston office.

Weather forecasting was (and still is, to some extent) a highly inexact science, and of course, the meteorologists of Isaac's day did not enjoy the benefits we now take for granted.  Beyond the lack of modern technology and knowledge about how hurricanes are formed and behave, a number of other factors contributed to the disaster.

For example, the Weather Bureau was engaged in an ongoing feud with its colonial counterparts in Cuba, and thus ignored critical information from the Cubans that might have ultimately saved lives in Texas. (Many people -- including Isaac Cline, who had infinite faith and pride in his own understanding of the weather -- believed that no storm could do serious damage to Galveston.)  Use of the words "hurricane" and "tornado" were discouraged by the bureau (they might frighten people unnecessarily), and only headquarters in Washington was allowed to issue an official storm warning. The bureau's September 8 forecast for Galveston was "fair;  fresh, possibly brisk, northerly winds."  As a result, the storm and its severity came as a complete surprise for the vast majority of Galveston's citizens.  Cline later claimed he had personally saved up to 6,000 lives by warning the crowds of people watching the unusual wave activity on the beach to seek shelter -- although there is no corroborating evidence of this.

I came prepared to like this book, and I plowed through its 273 pages of text (plus notes, bibliography & index) in just three days (started on Friday, finished on Sunday).  I've long enjoyed popular history, and have been fascinated with disaster/survival stories since I was a kid -- and Larson's account of the storm and its aftermath makes for a gripping read. While I've never been through a hurricane (and have no desire to encounter one...!), growing up on the Canadian Prairies means I have more than a passing acquaintance with extreme weather (tornados, hailstorms, ice storms, blizzards...). Moreover, I was born on the banks of the Red River of the North, where both sides of my family have lived (on both sides of the U.S./Canada border) since the late 1800s and endured one devastating flood after another. (The riverside house that was my first home no longer exists -- it was torn down after the flood of 1966 to accommodate the construction of a ring dike that has saved the town many times in the years since then.)
I gave the book four out of five stars on Goodreads -- but would really rate it about 3.5 (any Goodreads users know how to assign half-star ratings??). I'd give it a half-star less for several reasons:

  • First, while the story of the storm itself kept me turning pages, wading through the earlier material that set the scene & introduced the main characters was not quite as exciting. 
  • Second, I was slightly annoyed that there were several references made to photos of various characters and places (not to mention the aftermath of the storm) -- but aside from the cover photo of Isaac Cline in his later years, there are no photos included in the book. I suppose there were copyright issues, etc., that prevented their use, but nevertheless, it was disappointing. (I've had a look at some of the photos available online, and they are dramatic.) 
  • Finally, Larson admits that, due to the lack of primary documents available -- everything Isaac owned up to 1900, including letters, photos and manuscripts, was destroyed in the hurricane -- he used "detective work and deduction" to flesh out the story of what Isaac Cline might have seen, heard, smelled and experienced.  For example, in the notes, we find items such as these: 
    • 7.  On Sundays: "Isaac never actually says he and his family visited Murdoch's and the Pagoda [bath houses] on Sundays, but given their proximity to his house, the communal character of the time -- and the absence of television -- it is all but certain that the Clines did so."  (The Beach: September 8, 1900) 
    • 13. On Friday, September 7, Isaac had read:  "In no document does Isaac Cline actually say he read the census report in the Galveston News, but it was the biggest local news story of the day. Isaac most certainly read it. (ditto above) 
    • 247. Isaac could not help it: Isaac never directly states that he should have taken his family to the Levy Building early on, but how could any man in a similar position avoid such thoughts? (Galveston: "Not Dead") 

Such "detective work and deduction" does make for a better story -- but these passages are more speculation than actual historic fact.  

Despite these reservations, I enjoyed "Isaac's Storm" and thought it was a good read overall.  It's also a cautionary tale. While weather forecasting is still an inexact science, and we roll our eyes when predictions of severe weather ("Snowmaggedon!!") don't pan out, stories such as "Isaac's Storm" remind us of why it's unwise to underestimate or ignore Mother Nature. My own philosophy is that it's better to be safe than sorry.  Take weather warnings seriously, be prepared and stay safe!  :)  

This was book #13 that I've read so far in 2017, bringing me to 54% of my 2017 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am currently 2 books behind schedule to meet my goal. :p  ;)

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