John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

History meme: Natural disaster

Like war, natural disasters don't hold much inherent interest for me, especially from a historical perspective. There's a certain sameness to them, you know? A tornado is a tornado. Some are bigger and more destructive than others, of course, but details aside, what is there to say about the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado that wasn't already said about the May 1953 Waco, Texas tornado? Cool air from the downdraft meets warm air from the updraft and boom. The aftermath of a natural disaster can be interesting, though even there the stories tend to be broadly similar. That's not necessarily a bad thing for those who suffer through a natural disaster -- a city trying to recover from and rebuild after a majorly destructive tornado would certainly want to look at how other cities dealt with similar problems -- but for me as a consumer of history, they don't hold much appeal.

That said, I've read a couple of really interesting histories of natural disasters, though both are interesting less for what they have to say about the disasters than about what led up to them and happened afterward. One was Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, which is about the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900. What made it interesting for me that Larson focuses much of his attention one a man named Isaac Cline, who was the head of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Galveston at the time, and whose confidence in the predictive science of the day led to the city be woefully unprepared for the storm when it hit. One of the critical reviews on Amazon says, "I would have preferred a little less about the office politics of the U.S. Weather Bureau and more about the mighty hurricane that destroyed Galveston," but for me it's that attention to the details leading up to the storm that made it worth reading.

The other was John Barry's Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America. While the amount of rain that fell in the days preceding the flood would have caused large floods at any point in history, Barry demonstrates how the politics and policies of the time exacerbated the problem -- hm, I see a pattern! -- and goes into a lot of detail about the aftermath, which genuinely did have a major effect on America, by accelerating the migration of black agricultural workers out of the south and into northern cities and jump-starting the political careers of Herbert Hoover and Huey Long.
Tags: history, memes, reading: books

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