I once again have found myself under the mesmerism of Erik Larson. His first and maybe shortest novel, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, found its way into my possession at the annual po-boy festival, where the book fair always puts out their millions for us to peruse. Having already read the three that follow this one, accidentally in chronological order, I was overdue to read this one. I am, as usual with his work, amazed at the wealth of information, attention to detail and research contained within his stories. This particular gem retells the story of the 1900 Hurricane (before naming practice) that made a direct hit on the coast of Galveston.
What is important to note here is that for many people who live in areas of turbulent weather, keeping track of, talking about, and/ or being aware of (and in awe of) the weather means life or death. It is more than a pastime. Americans, particularly but not limited to those in the South, are somewhat obsessed by the weather, with good reason. Our weather can be devastatingly dangerous.
What many people probably misunderstand, myself included in that lot until I read this book, was that the devastation of this storm is not a direct result of officials and forecasters being unaware of storm. It was simply that many were convinced that the storm was going to take another path and was nothing to worry about. They even believed in fact that it was not even such a serious storm to begin with. They were also convinced that they were somehow protected from storms taking a path in their direction, that it was scientifically impossible. Thus, few, if any, residents were warned of the storm’s approach until it was literally too late. Cuba, who apparently had pioneered hurricane detection (who knew?), had been right all along, that the storm was something to watch, but no one listened to them (9).
Throughout the book there is some brilliant writing. As someone who appreciates good writing, I look for very colorful language in the books that I love. To make a fan of me, all you need to do is come up with something like this: “In Galveston, the humidity was nearly 100 percent. To move was to drip.” (25). Or another, “The air was like a moist sweater.” (132) Absolutely brilliant, and descriptions I can completely relate to, living not so very far from there in a place every bit as humid. He is even more colorful, while creating a tragic image, when he describes the flooding of Galveston as “a gigantic ship sinking beneath the sea.” (149)
The one criticism I could have about this book was the way it would occasionally jump around in time, previewing what was to come or backing up to pick up a timeline already started. I sometimes had trouble keeping up with the chronology. That would be my only critique. Otherwise, the story is riveting, captivating, fascinating and very scientifically intriguing. I learned a lot about these storms that I have literally grown up with. A lot of the science was quite a bit beyond my grasp to understand, but I still found myself fascinated with it. Some of the storm statistics recounted here were absolutely stunning, so much so that I found myself unable to resist reading them aloud to anyone who would listen (just ask my parents!). In the end the 1900 storm, Isaac’s Storm (named for the forecaster most closely associated with it) would take the lives of 8000 men, women and children and change its history forever (16). We will also learn about the formation of storms from a wave off the coast of Africa, to the evolution of killer storms like this one, of Columbus’s encounter with a killer storm in 1492, and of other killer storms that have made history, named and unnamed.
An intense, gripping, suspenseful and dramatic tale that I found hard to put down. As we witness the play by play, of approach to inundation, Larson puts together events that few witnesses survived to tell. It is his first book, and it clearly shows that he has developed his style and refined his writing greatly since then. Obviously I give this high marks, if only events were told consistently chronologically, it would be full marks. ⅘ stars.