Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: Isaac's Storm

On the morning of Saturday, September 8, 1900, the inhabitants of Galveston, Texas woke up to a brisk wind and a rainstorm that was a relief after weeks of temperatures in the 90s. As rain poured down, children played in the streets, and grown-ups went down to the beach to watch enormous waves crashing against the shore. Galveston was an exciting place to be -- the biggest and most prosperous city on the Texas Gulf Coast (just ahead of its nearby rival, Houston), and a place regarded by many as a future metropolis.

But what no one in Galveston realized was that the winds and the rain that entertained them that morning were merely the leading edge of the deadliest hurricane in history -- a hurricane that lashed Galveston with incredible fury over the next 24 hours. By Sunday morning, much of Galveston lay in ruins. Some 8,000 people died. The town never fully recovered. And Houston -- which, unlike Galveston, does not sit directly on the Gulf Coast -- became Texas's largest city.

This is the story that Erik Larson sets out to tell in Isaac's Storm (1999), an excellent book about the hurricane and of Isaac Cline, the chief of Galveston's official U.S. Government Weather Station at the time. Cline was a hard-working and diligent meteorologist who probably knew more about the weather of the Gulf Coast than anyone else in America. Unfortunately, he was convinced that any major hurricane coming from the Atlantic would likely turn north as it approached Florida and head up the East Coast. This is, of course, the usual course of such hurricanes. But as everyone in Galveston learned, there is a big difference between something that never happens and something that almost never happens. No one was expecting Galveston to be hit by a hurricane, and by the time they understood what was happening, it was too late to escape. Isaac Cline (who did survive the storm), spent the rest of his life wondering about how much of the damage was his fault.

I took up Isaac's Storm after reading In the Garden of the Beasts, Larson's new book on the early years of Hitler's regime. I thought that Larson's style -- heavy on details and foreshadowing -- would work perfectly with a disaster narrative. And I was right. In some ways, disaster books are like sports books: it's very easy to write a bad one, but very hard to write a good one. To write a good disaster book, you have to be able to explain the technical reasons why the disaster occurred, you have to be able to juggle multiple story-lines (because the disaster affects many people, some of whom live while others die), and you have to write in a style that is both respectful and suspenseful. You also need a disaster that is worthy of a book-length study; otherwise you're just padding out a magazine article.

Not very many people can pull this off, but when it happens, the results can be spectacular. There's a reason why Titanic was the most successful movie of all time. The survival instinct is incredibly powerful, and well-told stories of people facing immediate death are automatically compelling. Throughout Isaac's Storm, you find yourself imagining the scenarios facing each of Larson's many characters, and questioning how you would have responded in their place.

I was particularly moved by the story of a doctor who was also a weather buff. He was smart enough to figure out pretty early in the day that the storm was going to be really bad, and he immediately telegraphed his wife and children (who were returning to Galveston by train from a long vacation) that they should stop in San Antonio. Then, being a storm-lover, and knowing his wife and kids were safe, he settled down in great comfort and anticipation to watch what promised to be a very entertaining storm. This strikes me as almost exactly what I would have done in his situation, and I was very happy he survived. (But just barely; he ended up floating on a door for eight hours after his house collapsed). I was also very interested in the story of Isaac Cline, whose analysis of the storm erred in part because he was unwilling to admit that his little brother knew more about the weather than he did.

Of course, some people don't like disaster stories at all -- and if you are one of those people, nothing I say will persuade you to read this book. But if you ever enjoyed those "Adventure in Real Life" episodes they used to run in Reader's Digest, or if you love watching the Weather Channel during big storms, or even if you're just in the mood for some very well-crafted non-fiction, then you should give this book a chance.

Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. This does sound really, really great.

    I didn't know that Galveston was ever bigger than Houston. Houston, by the way, is hometown of A.J. Foyt. I've been watching a lot of old Indianapolis 500 clips this week, and one thing that hit me over the head was just how big a star A.J. Foyt was in the late 1970s. I would've never guessed at the time that we'd be talking more about Nolan Ryan than A.J. Foyt in the 21st century.