Tuesday book: The day a city drowned

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The Independent Culture


A STORM is like a siren, destructive, beautiful and compelling. It clears the mind as well as the air. It makes you feel very small, very frail, very human and yet somehow very powerful. I have found myself on the south coast of England, reading in a local paper how a teenager had died just the day before, washed from the harbour wall in rough weather. I have immediately risen from my seat and gone down to the same water's edge, determined to see the murderous waves for myself. And determined to defy them.

Children, in particular, are always delighted by water, however rough and threatening. When I was a child, our house flooded and we had to live on the first floor with loaves of bread being delivered by the army through our upstairs windows. I flashlighted over to my best friend opposite, pretending that we were sending each other secret messages. Even when the water inched up overnight, I thought having my house flooded was the best thing that could happen.

When, on 7 September 1900, the Texan port of Galveston's adult population was anxious and afraid, the children regarded the emerging storm as a huge adventure. They sang watery songs often right up until the moment when they were washed away and died. One passenger alighting from the Houston train remembered how the true extent of the disaster first emerged when "the body of a child floated into the station".

Within the next 24 hours, almost 10,000 people were to drown. And as if this terrible toll were not enough, the storm even unearthed the bodies in the cemetery.

It should never have happened. The Texan section of the US Weather Bureau, under the direction of Isaac Cline, should have been able to forecast such a natural phenomenon and call for the town to be evacuated.

By the 1890s, belief in King Canute had been replaced by an unbending faith in scientific prediction. Cline had firmly countered the scaremongerers concerned about damage caused by a tropical storm years earlier. "The opinion held by some who are unacquainted with the actual conditions of things, that Galveston will at some time be seriously damaged by some such disturbance, is simply an absurd delusion," he had written in the Galveston News.

His office could, through its scientific observations, hold back the sea however hard it surged. It was an era of great optimism that all natural events could be quantified and controlled. Erik Larson observes that "In this new age, Nature itself seemed no great obstacle".

Isaac's Storm is a blow-by-blow account of this ferocious and unexpected wind. Drawing on contemporary newspaper accounts, it is a scholarly and factual book that reads like fiction. This is partly because of the fantastical nature of the event it portrays. But it is more because of Larson's Dickensian attention to detail and adventure-story style.

This teases us through the few days up to the onslaught, introducing us to characters whom we then follow through the stormy weather to see if they survive. And throughout there is Isaac Cline, determined to prove, even after the loss of life and against all evidence to the contrary, that his science triumphed.

There seems to be a common delusion that drowning can be prevented if we pretend there is no threat. The band on the Titanic famously played on as the lifeboats were lowered. In downtown Galveston, it was business as usual as the waters rose. Men went into the office, wading through a foot of briney water as if they were always wet below the knee. The cabs continued to run, even when the flooding touched the horses' bellies. The winds cascaded up to 150 miles per hour, and waves reached 20 feet, tearing roofs from the wooden houses. And still people were more concerned about saving their worthless belongings than themselves.

Hardly anything survived. It was the worst natural disaster in American history. Galveston had hoped to rival the fellow Texan city of Houston. But Galveston is geographically vulnerable, with no barrier islands to protect it from forces of the Gulf. Today, Galveston is utterly eclipsed.

It is the weather we are interested in, not where it swept over. And the fiercer the forces of nature, and the more feeble they make us feel, the more we admire them. As Larson wryly observes, no one ever remembers a nice day. But no one ever forgets a good storm.