Since summer is nearly upon us I thought this would be a good time to remind everyone that no matter what we as humans try to do to control Mother Nature, she will never be tamed.
(Side note: while these are natural disasters, I consider the Galveston Hurricane to be a man-made disaster as well, seeing as how weather reports from Cuba were completely ignored by the US, due to us thinking we know more than everyone else.)
Any book by Erik Larson is a must-read for me. I started years ago with Devil in the White City and haven't stopped yet. Dead Wake rivals White City as my favorite, but you can't miss when picking up any of his books.
Isaac's Storm is Larson's first book and I loved it every bit as much as his most recent works - though I still have to get to Thunderstruck (which I own) and The Splendid and the Vile, which I have literally just checked out in ebook form from the library - 'Currently Reading' shelf and overdue ARCs be damned!
I have read several books about the Galveston Hurricane and this is the best. Larson uses much of Cline's own words to paint the picture of a man who, despite his experience, had no idea what he was truly up against that early September day. Through Cline's reports, letters, and telegrams we are given a look into his mind to see what he was thinking.
Cline and his family lived in Galveston where he was the resident meteorologist for the US Weather Bureau. As he observed the unusual weather phenomena the morning of September 8th, 1900, he failed to see what was coming even as the winds and sea swells gave warning. The hurricane barreling down on Galveston would become the greatest natural disaster in the history of the US, with at least 6,000 lives lost and the entire city nearly obliterated.
Larson masterfully blends science and history together, telling the story mostly from Cline's perspective. Cline was sure, based on his experience and knowledge, that no hurricane could really do damage to the city. This alone might be the worst thing about the whole tragedy, except there's more. the US Weather Bureau received warnings from Cuba that the massive storm as on its way, but Americans did what Americans do, and dismissed the warnings because we obviously know everything and what are the chances that someone else might be correct?
It wasn't until late afternoon into the evening that Cline realized something was wrong. In his defense, despite the winds and swells, there were other factors that indicated there was no storm coming - the barometer rose throughout the day. Yet the swells grew bigger and by nightfall they were so huge that structures near the beach were rapidly being demolished. But even before this, the city began to flood in the afternoon.
Yet Cline alone is not to blame, so I do not want my words misconstrued. As we know, bureaucracy is a bitch and it reared its ugly head here just as it does in disasters of our time. Even as the Weather Bureau was ignoring hurricane warnings from Cuba, they were also hamstrung by rivalries within about whether or not to even send out storm warnings. With no warnings issued, no calls to evacuate were ever given. The city was completely blindsided when the rage of the hurricane was suddenly upon them after nightfall. Not a single other person in the city aside from those who worked at the weather station even knew a storm as coming, let alone a hurricane.
As I have read books about this storm, I have wondered if the death toll might have been lower had it occurred during the day and honestly, I am not sure. No doubt that trying to find one's way in complete darkness contributed to many deaths, but the majority seem to have come from people struck by debris or their shelters collapsing on them. That would have happened no matter the time of day. But perhaps some who drowned would have avoided this fate had they been able to see how quickly the water was rising, and made it to higher crowd? This supposes a lot, I know, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about this particular hurricane and thoughts like this continue to pop up in my mind.
Like all of Larson's books, this reads as a novel and the pace is quick as we are taken along on the collision course with the storm. The lead-up is intense because you know what is coming, you have all kinds of information that the citizens did not, and know that many of them will not survive. Through the storm's arrival and its aftermath, you feel as though you are there in the midst of it, there among the remains of once-stately homes, businesses, churches, schools. You witness the desperate search for missing loved ones, and joy when reunions occur and the overwhelming grief and agony when they do not.
Highly. highly recommended.
In the terrifying hours that began on April 3rd, 1974 and ended on the 4th, a total of 148 massive tornados would wreak havoc in North America, from southern Ontario down to Alabama, Illinois to Virginia. It is surprising that more were not killed in the fury, given the devastation. In total over 300 lives were lost, but that is still 300+ too many. This "perfect storm" so-called by experts, will happen every 500 years or so, according to their estimates.
Here the author focuses on Limestone County, Alabama. We are given a history of the area and he introduces the people going about their lives until suddenly they aren't anymore because their whole world has changed. Levine focuses here because it is in this county that eight of the tornados touch down. One of the eight is an F5 and another is either an F4 or F5, though it was never fully determined which.
I appreciate the author's use of the science behind what makes a tornado happen and I feel like he explained it in a way that those with less knowledge than weather nerds like me have can still understand. The tornados come, lives change forever, and all the survivors can do is bury the victims and try to move on. It is as heartbreaking as it is compulsive to read. He makes the survivors so real as he sets their lives on these two days against the backdrop of the US at the time. Think of 1974 and all that the US was dealing with, as well as Alabama specifically. He paints quite a picture of figurative upheaval coupled with literal upheaval, and does so with the utmost compassion. There is nothing voyeuristic here as he relates the stories of the people who survived, and what they went through in order to do so.
Perhaps the best account of the absolute clusterfuck that was Superstorm Sandy. The storm was so massive, even scientists aboard the International Space Station were singularly focused on it as is stretch for literally hundreds of thousands of square miles. No one knew what to call it after it morphed from a tropical storm into the monster it became and absolutely no one knew how to prepare for it because they could not decide what it was, until it was too late to make any meaningful decisions. NOAA, the NWS, and the Coast Guard were constantly stumbling over themselves in regards to warnings and reports because the storm was so unprecedented.
The author does a fantastic job here of weaving together multiple points of view as those in power grappled with decisions they could not confidently make because the storm was constantly changing and morphing into something no one had ever seen before. As always there are heroes and villains, and everyone in between. The story specifically touches on the crew of the Bounty, a replica of the HMS Bounty that was not completely seaworthy even after some much-needed repairs, yet her captain took her straight toward the hurricane anyway. Some crew survived, bodies were recovered, though his was never found (this story is touched on in A Furious Sky, which I am also reviewing in this post, but much more information was included in this book than that one).
Overall I found this to be a very engaging read, though it was a bit dry in places when I was bombarded with acronyms and some technical aspects. I love weather stories but even I was a little bleary-eyed in parts where I was not sure what was actually being discussed. This is a thorough look at an absolutely devastating storm. I recall feeling that after reading this book there must be a better system put in place, so many lives could have been saved. But after reading A Furious Sky and seeing how many times we have said that exact phrase with each new kind of storm, I don't know that we will ever have a perfect system. Our world is changing rapidly due to climate change and these storms will always get worse. There is always a new big one coming and we honestly have no way to be 100% prepared for any of them that will most certainly follow. However, the author does well to point out that with better funding and better policies, those future situations could at least potentially result in better outcomes for the majority of people impacted. If everyone could just let NOAA do its job and give them the funding and technology to do so, we could be in a bit better shape at least.
This one tells the story of Moore, Oklahoma's complete devastation in May of 2013. The author grew up in Moore and as a child of Oklahoma it makes sense that she wanted to be a storm chaser. Instead, she became a journalist and returned home in the wake of the worst tornado ever recorded to find what was left.
Even as a journalist, certain choices in her writing style bothered me throughout, otherwise this would have easily been a four star read. She's a good writer and journalist, her reporting on the actual facts of surviving this monster are fantastic. Yet there was so much repetition on certain points that it became a chore at times to read. Everyone who has a fascination with tornadoes knows who Gary England is and it was unnecessary to constantly remind us of who he is and what he does. I understand doing so the first time for those who might be unfamiliar with him, but seriously. He's pretty much achieved worship status in Oklahoma.
The most frustrating part of the constant repetition though had to do with the children who were in school when the tornado struck. Everything was tiny. Tiny tiny tiny. Tiny chairs and tables, tiny bodies, tiny faces, tiny bathrooms. Tiny tiny tiny. This was so unnecessary to convey the complete vulnerability of these children and bordered on ridiculous. Even use of a different word would have been helpful because, GOOD LORD!
The majority of the book, however, is a good read and at times you feel like you are there in the midst of this monster, trying to survive. The lead-up itself was a bit slow but once we are in it, the pace moves quickly and you are whisked from location to location to survey the damage.
Just finished this one yesterday afternoon, could not put it down!
The author dives deep in the US history of hurricanes, going back through historical records to see how these monstrosities were written about, what progress was made along the way and by whom, and with what tools and instruments, and so on.
It is kind of embarrassing to admit that I've never really given a thought to how people hundreds of years ago dealt with this kind of weather phenomenon and how they viewed these storms. I learned much about these early hurricanes that remained nameless - and of the how the naming system we have today functions. I knew previously that lists are drawn up a couple years in advance, containing male and female names. I had no idea that prior to this, hurricanes were given strictly female names - and in that era the headlines about said hurricanes were as gross as one can imagine as misogyny gleeful abounded in the form of all sorts of ridiculous adjectives.
Dolin opened my eyes to just how impactful these storms were in the early days of our country - and the time before we were even that. As a result of hurricanes striking, it seems that this is one of the reasons Spain was unable to get a foothold in any farther than Florida. Not to mention the fact that these storms also played major roles in helping us win the Revolutionary War.
The author does a masterful job tracing the developments of scientists as they worked to understand these live-altering events. So many men who I had never heard of (so you know that there are women involved whose names we will never know as a result) contributed greatly to the field of hurricane study. It will surprise no one that Benjamin Franklin was in on the action as well.
Yet even for all the progress we have made in predicting and tracking hurricanes, we will be our own downfall.
Much like I mentioned in the Hurricane Sandy review, we will never have a perfect system because of our own impact on our planet. Climate change is making these storms deadlier and deadlier each year. If we do not make changes NOW, and some scientists warn we are already past the point of no return, then things will get worse - something likely unimaginable to those who survived the Galveston Hurricane in 1900. The official count remains around 6,000 killed, though given the timing and the fact that Galveston was a perfect summer vacation spot, we will never know how many truly died in what remains the worst natural disaster in our history.
Despite being such a massive undertaking to succinctly lay out our five-hundred year history in relation to hurricanes, I feel Dolin has done a fantastic job with what must have been an overwhelming amount information to work with. With recovery after these major events, there are many societal issues raised as it quickly becomes obvious that there is inequality in the way resources are dispersed among various communities all devastated by the same storm. One must only look to Katrina to see this is full view.