Over the years I have read quite a few books about hurricanes. It seems that I never tire of them. Like so many other Americans I am literally transfixed by the tales of these awesome meteorological events. It would appear that each one of these "monster" storms has its own set of unique charactoristics. I have found that the best books about these powerful storms are those that have the ability to transport the reader back in time and drop them right into the middle of the desperate circumstances being experienced by those unfortunate souls who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This is most certainly the case with Abby Sallenger's terrific new book "Island In A Storm: The Rising Sea, A Vanishing Coast, and A Nineteenth Century Disaster That Warns of A Warmer World". The people who found themselves trapped on the long and narrow Isle Derniere off the coast of Louisiana back in August 1856 were caught totally offguard by this hurricane that would severely test their courage and stamina and ultimately cost many of them their lives. In the meantime, throughout the pages of "Island In A Storm" Sallenger also chronicles the fate of three vessels who also had the great misfortune to find themselves at the mercy of this mammoth cyclone that today would qualify as a Category Four storm. Without a doubt this is a very compelling story!
It never ceases to amaze me where people choose to build their homes and businesses. Indeed, the Isle Derniere, also known as Last Island, was extremely vulnerable to these kinds of storms. It seems to me it was not a question of "if" but rather a question of "when" one of these storms would decimate the island. Yet according to Abby Sallenger relatively few people on the Isle seemed very concerned as this storm approached. However, during the course of the day on August 10, 1856 the situation on the island became increasingly desperate and the available options for residents would become fewer and fewer. Buildings were pounded by the relentless surf and torrential rains. At first most of the buildings flooded but by afternoon the structures were being ripped apart by winds well in excess of 100 miles per hour. People scrambled to find safe shelter. Many were struck by flying debris leaving some seriously injured and killing dozens of others. During the course of this storm some islanders performed heroically while others simply failed to measure up. Among the heroes cited by Abby Sallenger are Dr. Alfred Duperiere and one Michael Schlatre who lived to write about his experiences. In fact, his account of the events of August 10, 1856 was published in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly in the 1930's and was part of the source material for this book. As I mentioned earlier it seems that each one of these hurricanes are seperate and unique events. I was absolutely horrified by what took place on the Isle Derniere in the hours immediately following the storm. You will be too!
Aside from the compelling account of this storm I also found a couple of other facts mentioned in "Island In A Storm" to be really quite fascinating. As you might expect, people had precious little information about the weather in general and approaching storms in particular in those days. In Chapter 4 you will read about how Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution, with the cooperation of telegraph operators throughout the nation, pieced together what were in essence the very first weather maps. Also, Sallenger mentions that even in those days the well-to-do lived in the higher elevations of the City of New Orleans while lower income laborers were forced to reside in the more vulnerable low-lying areas of the city. This is an unfortunate economic fact of life and as we learned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina this pretty much continues to be the case today.
All in all, I found "Island In A Storm: A Rising Sea, A Vanishing Coast, and A Nineteenth Century Disaster That Warns of A Warmer World" to be a terrific read. I would compare it quite favorably to other books about hurricanes that I have read and enjoyed previously like R.A. Scotti's "Sudden Sea" and Mary A. Shafer's "Devastation on the Delaware". At the very end of the book Dr. Sallenger passionately makes his case to put an end to the madness and stop building and rebuilding on these fragile barrier islands. I would wholeheartedly agree with his position. "Island In A Storm" is exceptionally well written, thoroughly researched, thought-provoking and quite entertaining to boot. What more can you ask for? Very highly recommended!
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Paul Tognetti (drifter51)
I guess I would qualify as a frustrated writer. My work requires very little writing and so since 1999 I have been writing reviews on non-fiction books and anthology CD's on amazon.com. I never could … more
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This gripping recreation of a deadly 1856 hurricane also illuminates social history, weather, science, and the growing threat to vulnerable coasts
In the summer of 1853 explosions rocked New Orleans. The mayor ordered cannons fired and barrels of tar set aflame in a desperate attempt to rid the city of yellow fever. Those with the means fled. Many of them traveled to Isle Derniere, an emerging island retreat on the Gulf of Mexico, presuming it a safe haven.
Then, without warning, on August 10, 1856, a hurricane swept across the island, killing most of its 400 inhabitants. The Isle Derniere, already a narrow ribbon of sand, was devastated. What remained was a forest stranded in the sea, a sign of a land that would eventually vanish.
Island in a Storm is the riveting true story of the people who faced this fierce hurricane, their bravery and cowardice, luck and misfortune, life and death. It chronicles a coast in perpetual motion and a rising sea that made the Isle Derniere particularly vulnerable to a great hurricane. Finally, it is a cautionary environmental tale that reveals how global warming is spreading the unique hazards of river deltas to barrier islands around the world.
Abby Sallenger received his Ph.D. in Marine Science from the University of Virginia and is the former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Coastal Geology. He presently leads the USGS Extreme Storms research group.