In the eye of the hurricane
One hundred years ago, Isaac Cline got up on the morning of Sept. 8, left his house, harnessed his horse and sulky and rode three blocks down to the city beach. Crunching along on oyster shell-paved streets, Cline surveyed the unusually powerful breakers swiftly coasting in towards the city's two bathhouses and the elegant Beach Hotel. A meteorologist for the recently established Galveston office of the Texas U.S. Weather Bureau, Cline had never seen anything quite like this on the normally placid Gulf Coast, but like many of the townspeople that morning, Cline had faith in the ability of the city to withstand anything. Within the next 24 hours, however, 8000 men, women and children would lose their lives, the city would suffer the utter destruction of its downtown core (from which it would never fully recover) and Cline himself would suffer a very personal loss.
While Isaac's Storm describes ocean swells "the size of elephants" slamming against the city's architecture and how houses were ripped apart by wind and water as if the storm were seeking out the people inside, the book is much more than a disaster book. It says as much about the turn of the century, the people living there and the man seemingly in the eye of the hurricane as it does about the storm itself. It says something too about the detective skills of the author, Erik Larson, who, in the course of writing a completely different kind of book, discovered a natural disaster all but lost to history.
"I did not set out to do a book about a hurricane. What I'd begun working on was a book about a murder in Manhattan of a guy named William Marsh Rice," explains Larson from his home in Seattle. "He was one of the big millionaires of the Gilded Age."
Through his research, Larson discovered that in addition to his valet plotting against his life, Rice lost a number of business interests to a hurricane in Texas at the turn of the century, hastening his own demise as his valet realized he'd better kill off his wealthy employer before any more money was lost.
"The hurricane played a material role in his death," says Larson.
Larson began studying microfiche of the New York Journal from that period and discovered that the hurricane had killed 3,000 to 5,000 people and all but destroyed Galveston.
"Three thousand to 5,000 dead was a gross underestimate, as it turns out," says Larson. "I consider myself what you'd call a hostile weather junkie and I thought, it can't be that I've never heard of this storm. I thought what I was looking at was yellow journalism at its best. A lot of the people at the time just figured it was the Hearsts and the Pulitzers battling it out with these exaggerated headlines."
Larson discarded his initial idea for a book and instead followed what he calls "the siren call of a storm."
"A hurricane has a natural narrative arc," says Larson. "It's like a thunderstorm. The skies darken, everything gets more and more suspenseful, then you have the climax and then the denouement. But you've also got to have people the readers care about, a few characters that go all the way through the book."
One of the most remarkable things about Isaac's Storm, is that while the story is grounded in historical fact, it reads like a suspense novel with a literary bent. The figure of Isaac Cline moves through the pages with the surefooted certainty of an Oedipus, or an Agamemnon. With him are a few of the townspeople -- Louise Hopkins, Judson Palmer, Ruby Credo and August Rollfing -- who are notable not for the kind of status Cline surely enjoyed, but by the mere fact of surviving.
"I call it emotional traction," says Larson. "You have to know these characters to get a sense of the dimension, the tragedy of the storm."
For Larson, sifting through the details of people's lives a century ago was one of the central joys -- as well as one of the great challenges -- of writing Isaac's Storm.
"I call it writing 'little man history'" Larson explains. "It's a challenge. If you do a book on Teddy Roosevelt, that's 'big man history' and it's very different. You can spend five years reading before you even begin to say anything new. With Isaac, his personal possessions were literally wiped off the face of the earth the day of the storm."
Larson is quick to point out too that while the book feels like a novel, it's built on sound enough research that the book could have -- with a few small stylistic considerations -- been published as an academic paper or university press local history book.
"That's the stuff I love," Larson confides. "It's the stuff that real historians--those poor boring people who get stuck in ideological history-- it's the stuff they leave in the footnotes; that's the stuff that I live for."
What's most telling in Larson's account of the hurricane's tragic consequences is how quickly the townspeople tried to put the damage behind them. The magical city once considered the "southwestern Ellis Island," rebuilt itself while playing down the true extent of the damage. Larson says that before the hurricane, Galveston had been in a neck-to-neck race with Houston to become the biggest city in Texas, a position it was never to regain.
"One of the things I found very striking is that you cannot get a sense now, except through the imagination of what it was like for Isaac Cline to walk out of his office," says Larson. "They built a seawall and they elevated the entire city. So that very fundamental element, that perspective of just how close to sea level Galveston was, is missing, except in the West End where the sea wall ends."
Modern-day Galveston shows few signs of what happened there a century ago. Palatial new homes on the West End perch on stilts within yards of evacuation route signs, while a Wal-Mart now stands at the site of St. Mary's orphanage, where 90 children and 10 nuns died as floodwaters ravaged the sturdy brick structure.
"I think these days it's more denial and certain other infrastructural things, for instance the fact that someone is willing to insure those houses on the West End of Galveston," says Larson, of people's desire to sublimate tragedy into rebuilding. "It's crazy. You really have to go to the West End of Galveston to fully understand just how nutty it is. No amount of prose can really do it justice in terms of capturing how low in terms of sea level that area is and how massive and elaborate some of these houses are on stilts. You have to ask yourself, what are these people thinking?"
Especially when Galveston is still considered one of the top five cities in the United States most likely to be devastated by another killer storm.
"The problem with hurricanes is that fundamentally, they're like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla," says Larson. "In the end, in those last 24 hours before landfall, a hurricane can do anything."
Even with sophisticated satellite storm tracking and other technological 21st century advances, the eternal struggle between humanity and nature is far from reaching a stalemate.
"The fundamental theme of this book is that our technological hubris vs. nature is a conflict that grows more acute every day," he says. "It's far from waning and it's far more fraught today than it was in 1900."
Larson explains that it isn't so much a big earthquake toppling Seattle or more hurricanes sweeping devastation into America's harbors that keeps him awake as it is a simple human lack of foresight.
"Take genetic engineering for instance, how there's this huge celebration on the front page of the New York Times about the mapping of the human genome," says Larson. "These guys are just racing along with no concern over what this means, but just who gets there first. And that's just the way technology works. The thing that really gives me nightmares is not earthquakes, it's not weather, it's the fact that we have stopped paying any attention to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in any material way. That's the scary thing. Talk about technology vs. nature and human life--it's really appalling."
Erik Larson reads from Isaac's Storm at Auntie's Bookstore on July 27 at 7:30 p.m Call: 838-0206.