Yep, THE Al Roker. The weather guy. Fellow SUNY Oswego alum. Smart, funny, the kind of guy you want to have over for poker night.
Roker has actually written a few books, covering cooking, murder mysteries, family, and weight loss. The Storm of the Century was released late last year and offers a compelling historical review of the Gulf Hurricane of 1900 that destroyed Galveston, Texas.
Admittedly, the book was not what I expected. I anticipated a book that had more structure and was a bit more proper and history-bookish. While I was pleasantly surprised by the book’s more narrative approach, switching gears mentally took me a while, which is I think why I had a hard time with the first few chapters. That’s on me, though, and not a reflection on the book itself.
The book is set up almost like a work of fiction, setting the stage of the time and place of our environment and introducing and developing the main characters. Don’t be fooled, though – this is no work of fiction. The events described in the book are real, as were the stories of the people. Roker emphasizes this at the end of book, as he details both formally through a bibliography and informally through narrative, the sources of his information, which include newspapers, scholarly works, historical accounts, and documented eye witness reports.
The book follows the lives of several individuals and families, with the primary focus on Isaac and Joseph Cline, who worked for what became the National Weather Service. Roker mixes in a number of other personalities from Galveston and other areas. Notables, such as Clara Barton, Joseph Pulitzer, and William Randolph Hearst also figure into the events of this devastating hurricane. Roker provides insight on the state of politics and society in the post-Civil War United States, external political relations, and certain beliefs of those in meteorological science at the time, including the Jesuit priests of Cuba.
Roker details the interesting history of the National Weather Service, with its roots in the US Army Signal Corps, as well as some of the science and instrumentation of meteorology. It’s interesting to see how much we have advanced in the science, yet how much still reflects back on what was done almost 120 years ago.
In the end, the events surrounding The Storm of the Century create a story of human error, tragedy, and perseverance. In the practices of emergency management we must always keep in mind the human element. Ultimately, that’s why emergency management exists. While our focus might be on critical infrastructure, NIMS, or the current organization of FEMA, the reason why must ALWAYS reflect on people and our need to protect them from the impacts of disasters. The Storm of the Century does just this, putting society front and center.
The Storm of the Century is overall a good read and accessible to many audiences including disaster and meteorology buffs, social scientists, and even those interested in US history. The book is a great read for colleges and high schools alike, offering insights on society, politics, and science. And hey, mine is even autographed. Thanks Al!
© 2016 – Timothy Riecker