Yachts International - - Contents -

This past Oc­to­ber, I was sit­ting at a noisy, packed restau­rant bar in New York City hav­ing a salad for din­ner, mind­ing my own busi­ness, en­grossed in a book I couldn’t put down, when a guy took the seat next to me. As he sat down, he asked, “Is that the hur­ri­cane book?”

It was Erik Larson’s fan­tas­tic “Isaac’s Storm,” which chron­i­cles the Septem­ber 8, 1900 hur­ri­cane that took 8,000 to 12,000 lives and left the city of Galve­ston, Texas, in ru­ins. Even to­day, it re­mains the dead­li­est hur­ri­cane in Amer­i­can history.

Larson is a mas­ter of the non­fic­tion genre. His books, in­clud­ing “The Devil in the White City,” “In the Gar­den of Beasts” and “Thun­der­struck,” of­ten are told in the con­text of cul­tural and tech­no­log­i­cal tran­si­tion: the dawn of elec­tric light­ing, Ber­lin in the 1930s, the in­ven­tion and adop­tion of wire­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion. His sto­ries fo­cus on com­mon folk and prom­i­nent peo­ple, and on how they in­ter­act with and in­flu­ence his­tor­i­cal events. His books are deeply de­tailed, metic­u­lously re­searched and told in the ur­gent style of the best page-turn­ing nov­els. “Isaac’s Storm,” pub­lished in 1999, fits that bill.

The story is told through the eyes of Isaac Cline, direc­tor of the Texas sec­tion of the nascent U.S. Weather Bureau, fore­run­ner of to­day’s Na­tional Weather Ser­vice. In the last days of the 19th cen­tury, the bureau was un­der fire from many fronts, be­ing of ques­tion­able value with fore­casts of­ten less than ac­cu­rate along with egos and po­lit­i­cal in­fight­ing in­flu­enc­ing re­sults. It would be a stretch to call fore­cast­ing a science at that time. Weather sta­tions such as the one Cline and his staff manned in Galve­ston were equipped with lit­tle more than a ther­mome­ter, a barom­e­ter and an anemome­ter, from which in­for­ma­tion was shared among sta­tions by tele­graph to pro­duce daily “fore­casts.”

As Larson tells it, while Cline may have been among the best at his pro­fes­sion, science and tech­nol­ogy had not yet evolved to a point where he or any­one else could have pre­dicted the storm that nearly wiped Galve­ston off the map in Septem­ber 1900. In­for­ma­tion was largely anec­do­tal, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion was lim­ited to the tele­graph wires. Low-ly­ing Galve­ston was a sit­ting duck when the storm tides ar­rived. Larson’s de­scrip­tion of the sea wash­ing much of the city away and the hor­ri­ble af­ter­math is com­pelling.

Scroll ahead 117 years. We now view storms from satel­lites and air­craft with data pro­cessed through su­per­com­put­ers and in­for­ma­tion dis­sem­i­nated in real time. We see the lows churn­ing off the west coast of Africa as soon as they or­ga­nize. We know enough to at least have a clue where they might go once they turn into the deadly saw blades we rec­og­nize as hur­ri­canes. Fore­cast­ing now al­lows residents of places like Galve­ston at least a few days’ no­tice to evac­u­ate, but ob­vi­ously, it’s still not a per­fect science, as we wit­nessed last fall, and have ev­ery fall since hu­mans first oc­cu­pied the con­ti­nent.

As I write this, Hous­ton, parts of Florida and the Caribbean are still re­cov­er­ing from Har­vey and Irma. Six weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria ap­peared on the scene, 85 per­cent of Puerto Rico was with­out elec­tric­ity and a quar­ter of its cit­i­zens were still with­out clean drink­ing water. No num­ber of satel­lites or su­per­com­put­ers will re­duce the dam­age from such storms, but at least we have more and bet­ter in­for­ma­tion than Cline did to help re­duce loss of life.

The guy who sat down next to me in the noisy bar was meet­ing his girl­friend for din­ner. Oddly, he, too, pulled a book out of his pack and started read­ing. It was a Nor­man Mailer tome. I can’t re­mem­ber the ti­tle, but it must’ve been good. We both sat in si­lence, en­grossed in the sto­ries we were read­ing, safe and dry with plenty of power and potable liq­uids.

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