disaster

“Isaac’s Storm” A Far-Too-Timely Masterpiece

Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Erik Larson
Crown Publishers 1999
273 pages of text, 323 with notes

As wind shook my apartment on Thursday, as the cyclone passed overhead, I forgot for a moment if I was in Boston, with snow pelting against the windowpanes, or in Houston, with rain, trees, and shingles threatening to break through the plywood covering our windows.

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View of my neighborhood. Likely thoughts of driver: “Screw this.” 

Watching footage of dumpsters and ice floes streaming through downtown, and hearing news that parts of New Hampshire will be colder than Mars tonight, I decided it was time to delve into a disaster book.

“And in a single day and night of misfortune…
the island of Atlantis sank beneath the sea”
-Plato, Timaeus

I grew up on the flat, hot, humid coastal plains of Texas. A favorite summer destination for my family was Galveston, the barrier island about an hour south from Houston on I-45. When rain threatened our day on the beach, or we were already too sunburned for our own good, one of our indoor activities was a locally produced documentary film about the Great Storm of 1900. As a child, I was fascinated and horrified by the story of how an unanticipated September hurricane killed at least 8,000 and knocked Galveston from its position as Queen City of the South. It remains the deadliest disaster in U.S. history in terms of human lives.

That is my only complaint about the book I am about to review. For historical accuracy, the subtitle should conclude “the Deadliest Hurricane in American History.” I understand that the publisher had to sell copies, however.

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Sassy-approved. 

Isaac’s Storm is a work of nonfiction that centers on Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman of Galveston in September 1900, husband, father, scientist, and upstanding citizen. While nonfiction, Isaac’s Storm rises to narrative and descriptive heights that most fiction authors only dream of reaching. Without burdening readers with cumbersome and slow backstory, Erik Larson recreates Isaac, his family, his fellow-citizens, and his time with a historian’s scrupulous attention to detail and novelist’s gift for characterization and conjecture.

For anyone who has visited Galveston, or lived on the Gulf Coast, you will be transported by descriptions of “the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze” and “the thudding…caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach” (8).

The Galveston of 1900, so vividly resurrected by Larson, is a cosmopolitan city, the Ellis Island of the South, home to large communities of German and Jewish immigrants, as well as a (relatively) respected and protected African-American community. Among the most memorable characters Larson introduces is Rabbi Henry Cohen. This pillar of Galveston’s community, revered by his congregation and Gentiles alike, was marital counselor, expeditionary to Southern Africa, and single-handed rescuer of maidens from captivity in a local bordello.

Seriously, he went in swinging and carried the kidnapped woman out on his shoulder to freedom. Someone needs to make a movie about him.

Larson interlaces these human, variable, lively accounts of daily life with brutally objective descriptions of the storm as it forms off the coast of Africa and moves inexorably (and yet inexplicably) towards Galveston. These sections are set apart by black borders along the page; one is tempted to think of Victorian mourning borders on stationery.

Consider Larson’s ecstatic, almost pornographic descriptions of cloud formation:

“It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth’s soul The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night. There was cordite, ether, urine, dung. Coffee. Bacon. Sweat. An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey” (19)

Poetry. Absolute poetry.

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The binding is beautiful, too. 

Isaac’s Storm is, above all, a tale of hubris. A naive confidence that Galveston would never fall victim to a hurricane, bolstered by Cline’s per-order report to local businessmen that the city was safe; an imperialist belief that brown-skinned Cuban forecasters could not possibly know more about hurricanes than the newly-formed Weather Service’s Washington office; a last-ditch hope perhaps this house would survive the sixteen-foot storm surge when hundreds like it had not been spared.

The most salient forensic aspect of the book comes in the aftermath of the storm. Without refrigeration, electricity, DNA, dental records, or fingerprints, the people of Galveston attempt to identify and bury their dead with dignity.

Those attempts, for the most part, end rather ghoulishly.

Isaac’s Storm closes with its original 1999 conclusion, which raises the specter of global warming and its impacts on hurricane formation. Larson ponders how “a curious quirk in the New York-New Jersey coastline…[could allow] even a moderate hurricane on just the right track to drown commuters in the subway tunnels under Lower Manhattan” (273).

In the years since the publication of Isaac’s Storm, Galveston and the United States as a whole have seen numerous tropical storms and hurricanes, among them: Allison (Galveston/Houston, 2001); Charlie (Florida, 2004); the deadly Katrina (New Orleans, 2005); Rita (East Texas, 2005), which proved that you cannot evacuate 2 million+ people from Houston in an orderly fashion; Ike (Galveston/Houston 2008), which I remembered as the winds whipped my apartment last night; Sandy (NJ/NY 2012), which did flood the tunnels of Manhattan; and this damned most recent hurricane season of 2017, with Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, which have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and the City of Houston.

If Mr. Larson were to provide a new foreword to his masterpiece, it should be one sentence:

“You were warned.”

5/5 stars: a nonfiction masterpiece, vivid, cinematic, and brutally timely
2/5 ‘fraidy cats: as other critics, quoted on the dust jacket, have noted, you will fear the sky for days afterwards
4/5 ick-factor: 8,000 bodies in the Texas summer heat. Use your imagination; Larson will leave nothing to it. 

Mini-review: I bought this book at the Galveston Bookshop, one of my favorite places in Texas and, consequently, the world. Stop by to enjoy their great selection of used books and new local-interest/local-author titles, as well as their fair and convenient pricing and credit system for selling your own books. I was able to redeem credit, stored in their system, from two years or more ago when I visited over my Christmas break. Isaac’s Storm is available there for $19.95 USD.

(This promotion was done freely and at my own instigation. Seriously, I just love the Galveston Bookshop)

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