Thursday, June 11, 2015

"Isaac's Storm" by Erik Larson (1999)

Erik Larson has caught your attention in the past few years. "In The Garden of Beasts" was the first review you ever did for this blog and "Devil in the White City" is one of those books that even people who would never normally read a history book admit that they enjoyed. His books are all non-fiction, but they read like novels. And even though his use of maps is inexcusably terrible, you have enjoyed his work in the past. So when you saw "Isaac's Storm" for $1.00 you could not resist it, especially when you found out it was about Texas.

When you were 12 years old you went to Sea Camp for one whole summer week. No one believes you when you tell them, but Sea Camp was even cooler than Space Camp which you had gone to the summer before. Sea Camp had a looser schedule and more time to hang out and act like a hooligan. It was at Sea Camp that you saw your first dolphins while laying with your head hanging over the bow of a shrimp boat as it cut through the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The beauty of that trio of amazing creatures mere feet below your face as they bobbed effortlessly, frolicking in the wake of the boat was enough to drive away any silly phobia of sharks. From that moment on for years to come, you were an aspiring marine biologist.

Sea Camp was sponsored by Texas A&M at their Galveston campus and even at such a young age you noticed something about the city of Galveston; everyone there was obsessed with a hurricane that had hit the city almost a century before. Some of the buildings proudly sported "1900 Storm" plaques on their facades proclaiming that they had survived this legendary tempest. Every tour guide you had and every college student who had volunteered their time as a camp counselor would point out to you and the other campers how much the city had been changed by the great storm of 1900. The 8 foot high sea wall ringing the entire island was a direct result of the great storm, the houses on pylons were a response to the great storm, some buildings still bore the line of the high water mark from the storm (which was well above your head). At the time it was fairly interesting to you, but not nearly as interesting as the real live dolphins or the sea turtle hatchery or the cute girls who were actually paying attention to you at a party (granted, they may have only been paying attention to you because you'd been stung by a dead Portugese man-of-war that manged to make your chest feel like it was on fire when it brushed your skin, but they were paying attention by God!). But nothing those people told you about the great storm of 1900 could even come close to making you understand how immense a tragedy it was.

In order to tell the story of the storm, Larson must first tell the story of the science of meteorology. That sounds boring, but Larson, like any decent historian, is a master of making the mundane fascinating, somehow turning meteorology into a tale of impending doom. As he educates you on the finer points of the physics of fluid and gas and the unimaginable forces that come in to play when monster weather systems draw energy from both the heat of the sun and the rotation of the Earth itself, he intersperses his analogy-laden prose with shorter chapters that plot the course of the one specific storm as it was birthed over the plains of Africa. Larson's ubiquitous analogies are absent in these chapters. As he plots the course of the storm across the Atlantic ocean, he sticks strictly to the science and the analytical math alone, giving these passages an ominous foreboding and an authoritative significance. This is the storm the whole story is about.

"Isaac's Storm" unfolds like one of those disaster movies your mother loves so much. It is a jigsaw puzzle of a tragedy. Larson uses his talents at imparting history as if it were a novel to build suspense and draw you into the story even though he tells you multiple times that there is no happy ending. It focuses on one man's struggle to make the most of himself and in the very moment that he reaches his goals catastrophe takes everything from him. Isaac Cline had risen through the ranks of the fledgling and much ridiculed Weather Service in the later part of the 19th Century. He was well respected in his field and confident enough in his experience to make sweeping statements of absolutes. In a book he published a few years before the great storm that would take so much from him, he wrote that hurricanes were required by the laws of physics to turn north through Gulf of Mexico and avoid landfall anywhere in Texas. This is a story of what damage great hubris can bring. "Isaac's Storm" is a great reminder of exactly what pride goeth before. Larson writes the story as if this storm didn't target Galveston, it was after Isaac Cline, targeting him for his certainty.

The weather experts on the island of Cuba, men who knew a thing or two about hurricanes, tried to warn the US about the storm after it left their tropical shores a mess. They knew it was a big one and that the unusual September heat wave would only serve to strengthen the cyclone as it made its way across the relatively shallow Gulf of Mexico. They tried to warn the US but they were muzzled by the very men who should have been the most receptive to their experiences. Again, pride was the culprit here. Pride and a healthy dose of racism and arrogance. "These poor Cubans are such panic mongers see hurricanes in every cloud," was the way the American Weather Service thought about the situation. They banned all weather related communication out of Cuba from being transmitted over American telegraph wires. Consequently, the people of Galveston had no idea what lay in store for them. This is a tale of hubris.

As the 19th century came to a close two cities along the Texas shores were vying to compete with New Orleans as a second deep water port for shipping through the Gulf of Mexico. Houston and Galveston. In 1900, anyone who was the betting sort would have wagered good money on Galveston taking the crown. It was a city vibrant with life. An influx of both foreign immigrants and Americans seeking to find a city where they could make something of themselves swelled Galveston's population greater than any other city in Texas. It was easy to see that Galveston was on the precipice of something big. No one could have predicted that the precipice was really a cliff.

The morning of September 8th dawned with none of the traditionally recognized warning signs of an approaching storm. The wind was coming from inland and there was no brick-colored sky. Isaac Cline saw no reason to be worried. The waves breaking on the beaches of Galveston were deep rolling breakers, but no one knew that was a sign of an offshore hurricane. Issac and the rest of his team from the Weather Service, people who were experts in forecasting the weather, went about their day calmly, never guessing there was disaster in store for them before the next dawn would break. Soon rains began soaking the island and the wind picked up. The waves grew in intensity and began to damage some of the buildings standing on the beaches facing the gulf. Soon those waves began to demolish those buildings. The wind from the north grew stronger and stronger driving the water in the bay between Galveston and the rest of Texas higher on the northern shoes of the island. Galveston was flooding from both sides.

The homes along both shores began to receive even more damage as the day progressed and the wives who had been left home that day began to grow more fearful as the water crept higher and higher into their streets. The men who had left those women at home however, the men who were supposed to make the choices that could save lives, feigned disinterest and a distinct, almost ostentatious lack of worry. They couldn't be seen by the other men to be scared or worried lest their manhoods be questioned. They soon realized the seriousness of the storm when a popular restaurant and saloon had its roof collapse from the gale force winds. Several prominent Galvestionian men were crushed to death before the eyes of dozens of others and the waiter who was sent to find a doctor drowned in the flooded streets outside. Only now, when it was too late, did the men admit their fears and race home to be with their families and try to save their loved ones.

There was no escape though. The bridges supporting the rail lines linking Galveston to the mainland had been destroyed by the storm. In fact, one train that had tried to make it but instead had turned around to head back to the safety of inland had been swamped anyway, killing almost one hundred passengers aboard. No ship's captain could even think of reaching the city in this kind of storm. Galveston is not protected by any wetlands or barrier islands. There is nothing to absorb the brunt of any approaching storm. In fact, Galveston is a barrier island. Before the worst part of the hurricane reached the city, her streets were already completely flooded. Around noon, the anemometer at the weather station snapped off in the hurricane winds. Its last recording was of winds up to 120 miles per hour... and the storm was only going to get much much worse.

The power of this storm was unimaginable. The extraordinary change in barometric pressure alone rose the entire sea level around Galveston by almost three feet. Larson reminded you that one cubic yard of water weighs about 1,500 pounds which means that a wave 50 feet long and 10 feet tall weighs over 80,000 pounds. If that same wave is moving at 30 miles an hour it generates a forward momentum of over 2,000,000 pounds. One witness said the waves moving through the city that day were pouring into his second story window which was exactly 35 feet off the ground. Nothing could stand in the face of that kind of power.

These waves and incredibly strong winds destroyed so many structures that it turned the debris and rubble into a three story high ridge of shattered timbers, twisted metal, stone work, and human corpses. This ridge of debris moved north through the city scouring the earth below clean of anything. Parts of Galveston were scraped as perfectly as if a massive lathe had been used to level her. The winds became so strong as the storm began to make landfall that it would rip bricks from their mortar and fling them across the city perfectly horizontally. Gravity itself was no longer enough to force the flying debris towards the Earth. Debris spun through the air of Galveston like shrapnel from an artillery barrage. The wind drove the raindrops so fast and so forcefully that when they slammed into a horizontal surface they released enough energy to spark little bits of light. On that day in Galveston, rain fell like fireworks.

Houses collapsed with entire families huddling inside them. A massive Catholic orphanage that had stood on the shores of the city like a castle was taken apart stone by stone, like a child demolishing his Lego creations. For days afterwards, the bodies of children were found tied with rope to the nuns who had died trying to keep their charges safe until the very end. Elsewhere in the city, survivors told impossible tales of being swept out to sea on the flotsam of their neighborhoods only to be blown back to the skeleton of the city that had been destroyed by a storm no one knew was even coming that morning.

Isaac Cline watched as his house collapsed around him. His family, and fifty other neighbors who had unwisely sought refuge in the Cline house were either crushed in the collapse or thrown into an angry sea. Miraculously, Isaac and his youngest daughter clung to the lifeline of the remains of their house. Somehow, in the wrack and fury of the storm, tossed by waves and blinded by lightning, Issac found his brother, Joseph, who had saved Isaac's other two daughters. Isaac's pregnant wife was not so lucky. Her body was found days later only a few blocks from the footprint of their old home. Joseph had urged Isaac for hours before the collapse to abandon the house and seek safety in the higher ground closer to the middle of the island. In his arrogance, Isaac had refused to listen to Joseph, and his wife had paid the price. The two brothers never spoke again.

In the days after the storm roared over the island and moved ashore, funeral pyres had become the most efficient means of dealing with the piles of bodies littering what remained of Galveston. Somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people had been killed. When you were twelve year old, they told you wrong. In the years after the storm the city hadn't built an eight foot sea wall, they had built one that rose seventeen feet above the beach around the entire city. Not only that, they made a titanic effort and raise the whole city, every building, road, wall, and lamp post even higher. They filled the space underneath with eleven million pounds of earth. But it wasn't enough. The Texas oil boom hit just after the storm destroyed the city. Houston dredged her bay to create the perfect deep water ports for the oil tankers that would soon be moving millions of barrels of black gold out of the state. Houston had stolen Galveston's crown in her moment of tragedy and eventually became the largest and richest city in the state. Today, Galveston is where the wealthy of Houston have their beach houses.

Almost exactly 108 years after the great storm of 1900 struck Galveston (and nine years after Larson wrote this book) hurricane Ike almost wiped the city off the map again. This time we knew it was coming and evacuated the population appropriately. Satellites and storm-spotting airplanes now help us better predict where deadly storms will go and how powerful they will be when they get there. But "Isaac's Storm" is a vivid reminder to never succumb to our own hubris. Nature is the most powerful force on Earth. Believing we can control her or predict her is a recipe for nothing but disaster.

There is a reason the people of Galveston still speak of the great storm of 1900 with awe. Because it was a monster. They still talk about it because they need to remind one another what the city lived through and they need to sound the alarm to the rest of us that hubris can summon the worst of nightmares. Some monsters are creatures of our own making and humility is a virtue that can save lives.

-On to the next book!

P.S. Here is a panorama of what was left of Galveston after the storm passed over. Only a few buildings are left standing in the heart of downtown, the rest is scoured clean all the way to the beach which merges seamlessly with the flat spread of the ocean. Pictures like this make it clear that the fact that anyone survived the storm at all is miraculous.