Isaac’s Storm, by Erik Larson

On September 8, 1900, the most horrific storm that has ever struck the United States hit the coast of Galveston, Texas, almost without warning. As the storm raged throughout the night, into the next morning, winds are thought to have hit a steady rate of 150 mph, with gusts of up to 200 mph. Water from the bay and from the ocean combined with the torrential rains to flood the city to at least 15 feet deep. People who were taking refuge in the second stories of their homes were not safe, as the water rose even to those levels. At one point, a railroad tie flew through the air, piercing the roof, ceiling, and floor of a house. Houses were blown apart, floated away, and simply disappeared, in some cases. Isaac’s Storm is the story of this storm.

“Isaac,” the “hero” in this story was a weatherman in Galveston at the time of this storm. Of course, the instruments were much more primitive, and unable to predict what was coming their way. However, there was also some arrogance going on as the U.S. bureau fought with the Cuban bureau, who warned the U.S. that a hurricane was coming. Not only did the U.S. people ignore the warning, after the hurricane, they even flat-out denied that the storm was the same one that crossed over Cuba days before.

As the storm eased its way into the city, people played in the flood waters. They gathered on the beach to watch the waves destroy the little shacks that made up the shops on the Midway, an area right on the beach. It wasn’t until the roof was blown off of a local cafe, caving in the second floor and killing five men that people finally began to be afraid. The horror that ensues from that point is almost unspeakable. Mr. Larson crafts a narrative in Isaac’s Storm that I literally did not want to put down. In fact, it even got me in trouble with my wife one night, because I was reading too late while she was trying to sleep. That was the night I finished the book.

The reason I wound up reading the book in the first place is interesting (at least to me). We visited Galveston again back at the end of June this year. We go there frequently, at least every couple of years. It is one of our favorite cities in Texas. On this trip, Christi and I took in one of their popular “Ghost Tours.” There are many places in Galveston that are allegedly haunted. As the tour took us around the area of Galveston known as The Strand, our guide told us stories of places that were “haunted.” Many of the stories revolved around the hurricane described in Isaac’s Storm. So, I became very interested in this storm. Then my son-in-law recommended that I read this book. I’m glad he did, and I’m glad he listened.

I think.

Honestly, I’m surprised that I can sleep at night, it’s such a horrific story. At least 8000 people died in the hurricane, making it the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. The thing is, that number could very well be higher. It is estimated that the death toll was somewhere between 6000 and 12,000. Galveston did survive, as we all know. What many people don’t know is that, before this hurricane, it was bigger than Houston, and on course to become the kind of city that Houston eventually became.

Among the tragedies of the night was an orphanage that sat where the local Wal-Mart now sits. The nuns thought the best way to protect the children was to tie several of the together at the waist and then tie the group to a nun. That’s exactly how they found them later, buried in the sand. As the book ends, we read this:
But in the narrow blue-bordered lands of Galveston, extravagant new homes rose on forests of stilts adjacent to blue evacuation signs that marked the island’s only exit. Whenever a tropical storm threatened, residents converged on the city’s gleaming Wal-Mart to buy batteries and flashlights and bottled water. Once, in a time long past when men believed they could part mountains, a very different building stood in the Wal-Mart’s place, and behind its mist-clouded windows ninety-three children who did not know better happily awaited the coming of the sea.

It is said that sometimes, late at night, toys fly off the shelves in that Wal-Mart, when no one is around.

TTFN, y’all

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