Thursday, October 29, 2015

Storm of the Century: City of the Dead: Galveston Hurricane, 1900 by T. Neill Anderson

The young reporter sat in a small rowboat in Galveston Bay, not believing his eyes. Human bodies bumped against the boat. This is what the end of the world looks like, he thought.

He finally reached the shore on the south side of the island. He stood on the beach and watched men pull bodies from the sand. One man in particular was struggling to lift the tiny body of a very young boy. Something was keeping the body buried in the sand. Seeing a length of clothesline around the boy's waist, he pulled on the line. Yet another body emerged--a girl this time, also with clothesline tied around her waist. The man followed the line. After more digging the man unearthed two more girls, locked in a horrified embrace, their wet hair intertwined.

Trembling, through his tears he saw that the last boy was holding on to something. The man pulled once again on the line. It was the body of a nun. Her eyes were open, gazing up at the sky.

Young readers in middle and high school no doubt remember something of the destruction and misery caused by Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy, but even these storms pale in comparison to the grim statistics of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Coming at the dawn of the twentieth century, communication was limited to telegraph and local telephone systems, and no one on the offshore island of Galveston had any idea what was about to strike the virtually defenseless city, the largest in Texas at the time, that rose less than five feet above sea level at its highest point. The town was accustomed to wind storms, and despite a few oddities about this storm, almost no one expected what was about to hit them.

On the day before the hurricane, Dr. Sam Young, a weather hobbyist, walked the four blocks from his house to the Gulf beach and noticed something unusual.

He watched the rising water lapping at the streetcar trestle. The rain was really falling, and the increasing wind was coming from the north. Normally when the wind came from the north, the tide would be low.  On Wednesday the tide was high and the water was rough, but the air was completely still. Something in the Gulf must be pushing the water. Thursday was the same--but one thing was different--a haziness in the atmosphere. Sam knew that usually preceded a serious storm.

And what followed was what we now call a perfect storm.

T. Neill Anderson's Horrors of History: City of the Dead (Charlesbridge) tells the true story of survivors and victims of the most devastating storm ever to strike North America in terms of destruction and death.  Sam Young himself survived, after retreating from the waters that crept up to the top floor of his house, by wrenching a door from the top floor balcony off its hinges and riding it like a raft until the wind and water ripped it apart, forcing him to swim to the pile of debris forming at the center of the island. Only a few hours after they had played in the water rising from the beach, orphan boys William, Frank, and James disobeyed Sister Elizabeth's urging that they tie themselves to her as St. Mary's Orphanage disintegrated around them, and were miraculously discovered alive the next day, clinging to an unrooted tree several miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. And Daisy Thorne, her mother, and a few neighbors clung to her bed as the building crumbled, except for her bedroom. Few buildings survived the hurricane, and the thousands of bodies made the formerly prosperous and beautiful city a place of horror for the survivors.

Author T. Neill Anderson follows the story of other characters, some imagined, who were less fortunate than these survivors, as falling buildings, blowing debris, and ocean waves took their lives in a relentlessly realistic portrait of the biggest natural disaster in American history. That Galveston rebuilt itself is a testament to human resilience, one that young readers will surely recognize. Anderson's provides a map, an appended epilogue and author's notes which revisits his survivors and provides the subsequent story of the city's revival, but stands as a warning to what happens without the communication and social structure we now try to maintain against natural disasters.

Even reluctant readers will find themselves in the grip of this story, unable to stop turning those pages, as this historical event plays itself out in this grim but highly readable piece of riveting historical fiction.

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