Monday, November 15, 2010

Lessons For Today -- Isaac's Storm: A Good Read On Hurricanes and Disasters

This was a engrossing and deeply tragic book. It is all about the devastating Galveston Hurricane on September 8, 1900. At that time, there was no advanced warning for hurricanes and no regional weather service to focus on nearby multiple state forecasting. Meteorology was a new science. Tens of thousands of lives would have been saved with just a couple of days advanced warning. There was none because all weather related activities came out of Washington D.C. People did not move out of Galveston in time and the city was destroyed by storm surge that was higher than two story buildings. Because of the disaster, the National Weather Service was firmly established and regional weather bureaus were started. Isaac Cline is generally recognized as the person who did this. The book is not a boring recount of facts and dry material, but tells the story of some of the many lives destroyed.

The book centers itself around the life of Isaac Cline, a weatherman. He was the first person to establish reliable frost forecasts, but like almost all people of his time, did not understand hurricanes. They could only be understood well later with new technology and new scientific understanding. This was a time before aviation and photography/film was just in its infancy. The wonderful retelling of the tale of the Great Hurricane is embedded in the culture of the early twentieth century. There is quite a bit of thinking about what might have happened if only there was more communication with nearby areas in the Caribbean. Engineering Schools were first being established and beginning to separate themselves a little from agricultural engineering, but this was way before the separation of science into many scientific specialties of today. The findings of many new sciences were finding their way into the discourse of educated people. Unfortunately, communication was still extremely primitive. Their were no radio's or radio stations. There were no telephones or instant communications to share many sentences or much detailed information. For rapid communication, we had only the telegraph. It was used for brief, very truncated communications. Mr. Isaac Cline had downplayed the idea that a hurricane could ever overwhelm Galveston and no break wall had been built around Galveston.

I loved this book because it is a story with keen lessons even for us today. Think of all the lives that were lost in Katrina in 2005. People had been warning about that potential disaster for many years. There were warnings several days in advance that this might well be a catastrophic storm. Unfortunately New Orleans lower areas were not evacuated. Isaac's Storm is a book about learning lessons from a disaster and then taking action based on the new sciences. We as a society would do well today to revisit what happened in Galveston. In 1900 people learned and adapted. We were not a polarized society and regarded science and learning very highly. Today we polarize issues such as oil well safety or climactic change and there is little or no adaptation to show that our society has learned important lessons. Read Isaac's Storm or listen to it in an audio book. It will keep your attention and if you are like me, introduce you to critical thinking. What did they believe wrongly that led to this storm becoming a disaster? How did the people involved act in counterproductive ways? How would you have acted differently and why?

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