Natural Selection

Eric Larson Recounts The Storm Of The Century.

Isaac's Storm, by Eric Larson (Random House). Cloth, $29.95.

TWO OF THE best-selling books of this decade are Sebastian Junger's gut-wrenching tale of heroism and death among maritime New Englanders in The Perfect Storm, and Jon Krakauer's first-person account of a disastrous attempt to scale Mount Everest in Into Thin Air.

Both books are chilling accounts of how Man is no match for Nature when she gets pissed, and both are also shining examples of how a true story of what happened to real, flesh-and-blood people can be infinitely more interesting than the best that any fiction writer might conjure up.

Now, add to those two what seems to be the third part of the Nature-Uber-Alles Trilogy, Isaac's Storm, Eric Larson's haunting retelling of America's worst-ever natural disaster, the super-hurricane of 1900 which destroyed most of Galveston, Texas.

These days we have vague recollections of storms with folksy names. Oh, Andrew, that was the one that hit near Miami. Iniki? That's the one that battered Hawaii right after they wrapped on the filming of Jurassic Park. Camille? One of the worst. Hammered New Orleans the same week in 1969 as Woodstock.

But this hurricane, which has no name, is far and away the worst ever, certainly in terms of fatalities. It may well have been the most powerful storm ever in recorded history, and, as bad luck would have it, it hit the United States in just about the worst spot possible.

Larson tells us this early on, then goes back and calmly recounts the events leading up to the storm. Larson gives a tour of pre-hurricane Galveston, a bustling, cosmopolitan town on the verge of become one of America's great places. He then introduces Isaac Cline, a classic turn-of-the-century man, smitten with science and heady with the unlimited possibilities that America seemed to offer. He is part of the new National Weather Service, an agency bolstered by idealistic information gatherers at the bottom and sabotaged by bureaucratic idiots at the top. This nasty combination would cost thousands of people their lives.

As the storm churns out of the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean, hurricane watchers in Cuba (newly conquered by the U.S.) correctly predict its path, which will take it over the island and into the Gulf of Mexico, where it can gather strength on its way to the Texas coast.

Unfortunately, the people at the top of the Weather Service, buoyed in part by the prevailing disdain for Cuba born of the ease with which the victories in the brief Spanish-American War had been accomplished, choose not to believe the Cubans, considering them to be backwards and ignorant, and their methods to be laced with voodoo and superstition.

It is an incredible, unforgivable blunder, one trumped only by their complete unwillingness to admit their error or give the Cubans any props after the fact. Weeks after the disaster, when presented with incontrovertible evidence that the Cubans had been right, Weather Service head H.H.C. Dunwoody declared that the storm which had hit Galveston was a different storm from the one which had passed over Cuba a few days earlier.

The man in charge of the United States Weather Service would claim that the most powerful hurricane ever recorded had somehow sprung to life in the Gulf of Mexico just off the coast of Texas, a statement known even to people 100 years ago to be an absolute scientific impossibility. It's somewhat comforting to learn that self-preservationist political ass-covering isn't strictly a recent phenomenon.

Larson does a masterful job of detailing the physics of hurricanes, pointing out the painful balance of how much scientists now know about the storms and how completely reliable predictions may never be a reality. One of his revelations: What we know as a storm surge is less a matter of the storm pushing water onto the shore than it is a wall of water built up by early winds pushing water away from the shore and then allowed to crash back toward its initial position when the winds shift.

The focus never shifts far from Cline, who witnessed the storm first-hand and lived to experience the tragic and uplifting consequences. It was his responsibility to issue storm warnings, which he did (but probably too late). In his later years, he would claim to have saved thousands of lives, but he could have saved thousands more had he been privy to the warnings issued by the Cubans and kept secret by his superiors in Washington.

Larson's chapters on the storm itself are absolutely breathtaking, and the reader feels guilty being thrilled by the accounts of nature's fury while glossing over the fact that the dying were real men, women and children, many of whose last vision on this earth was of something more horrible and magnificent than anything found in heaven or hell.

The latter fourth of the book deals with the heroic rescue efforts, the rush to rebuild the town and the hope with which the survivors greeted the new century. (Why is it that the people back then knew that the century starts with '01 and today's morons don't?) But there was also this from a weather expert: "Galveston should take heart as the chances are that not more than once in a thousand years should she be so terribly stricken."

Other powerful hurricanes hit Galveston in 1915, 1919, 1932, 1941, 1943, 1949, 1957, 1961 and 1983.

Larson closes the book with a surprise ending of sorts. Nature had one last trick up its sleeve for Galveston. The city, which had endured the Storm of the Century, would later be relegated to second-tier status, not by the hurricane but by the discovery of oil at a place called Spindletop.

This is great reading, powerful and poignant.

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