Natural disasters have a way of changing people’s outlook, at least temporarily. As we see the wreckage left by Hurricane Sandy, we face a stark reality: people lost their lives, homes were destroyed, cities and towns throughout the Atlantic corridor crashed to a halt and are only inching back to normalcy.
It’s also a time when we realize how spoiled we are. No power and spotty cell phone service and Internet access leave us feeling like a cat without a window. Sure, we can play board games — or god forbid just have a conversation — but (and this is somewhat embarrassing to admit) I can only handle so much Scrabble before I get restless; it’s hard to read those letters by candlelight.
In New York City, where I’m based, recovery is happening glacially, but it is happening. Yet, with many subways out of commission and mid-town Manhattan still powerless, life is not quite back to its routine self. Preparing for the upcoming Miami Book Fair has been especially difficult as I’ve been chasing down publishers — most of whom are also NYC-based and similarly powerless — to set up author interviews and order books to review. With delayed mail and many publishing houses still closed, my only option for getting these books on time is going door-to-door to the publishers once they reopen and then schlepping a bunch of hardbacks back to Brooklyn. But that’s the worst of my problems. I’m lucky.
As time passes and all returns to normal, people will reflect on Hurricane Sandy. They’ll share where they were, whom they were with, and what they did. When it comes to living through a natural disaster, everyone has a story. With that in mind, here are a few books that tell some great disaster stories:
Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
By Erik Larson
Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, is one of the great historical writers, crafting suspenseful true stories that read like novels. Isaac’s Storm is no exception. On September 8, 1900 the worst hurricane in history overtook Galveston, Texas, killing up to 10,000 people and destroying thousands of buildings. At the center of the narrative is senior U.S. Weather Bureau official Isaac Cline. Told mostly from Cline’s perspective while also piecing together the recollections of hundreds of Galveston residents, this story of horrific devastation is one of arrogance, ignorance, and the consequences of putting politics before human lives.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883
By Simon Winchester
Geology isn’t usually first on a list of captivating topics. Yet, Simon Winchester threads together continental drift and plate tectonics, Indonesian history, and personal stories in such a compelling way that people may begin to wonder if their earth science teachers were on to something: geology really can be interesting. The volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, an island near the coast of what is now Indonesia, resulted in a tsunami that killed nearly 40,000 people. Beyond the death toll, Winchester illustrates how the event created Muslim unrest, and led to the overthrow of the Dutch in the East Indies.
Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed America
By John M. Barry
The 1927 flood in Mississippi is not often recalled in discourses about modern weather disasters, which is slightly ironic considering the fact that it was the most destructive river flood in American history. So much so it changed American politics, influencing the election of Herbert Hoover. The history of New Orleans, the political power of the Ku Klux Klan, and the migration of African Americans to northern cities all come into play in Barry’s narrative. Perhaps most notably, is the parallel that can be drawn to the racial disparities that we witnessed with Hurricane Katrina. Over 75 years later history seemed to have repeated itself.