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Island in a Storm: a book review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters, 2:19 PM GMT on July 06, 2009

Island in a Storm tells the riveting story of one of America's greatest hurricane disasters--the ravaging of Louisiana's Isle Derniere by the notorious Last Island Hurricane of 1856. If you haven't heard of Isle Derniere, there's a good reason why--the 13 - 18 foot storm surge of the Category 4 Last Island Hurricane completely submerged the 24-mile long, 5 to 6 foot high barrier island, which lay 5 miles off the central Louisiana coast. The resulting erosion by the pounding waves and wind-driven currents stripped away huge amounts of the island's sand, cutting a new channel through the 1/2-mile wide island. The author tells us, "During the 1856 hurricane, Isle Derniere was pushed beyond a tipping point from which it could not recover". Continued erosion during the 150 years since the 1856 hurricane has reduced the land area of Isle Derniere to less than 22% of what it once was (Figure 2).

The author
The book's author is Dr. Abby Sallenger, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey's Storm Impact research group, which investigates how the coast changes after extreme storms. The book is very clearly the work of a methodically-minded scientist, as the book quotes heavily from a broad range of historical sources throughout the text. Sallenger includes 50 pages of detailed notes and references at the end of the book. I found that the quotes were well-chosen and illuminating, and added a 19th-century feel to the book.

Figure 1. Track of the Last Island Hurricane.

A history book
Island in a Storm starts out as a history book, as we are introduced to the various people who will eventually be caught in the great hurricane. Sallenger spends six of the book's sixteen chapters setting the stage for the great disaster, and this portion of the story may drag on too long for readers who are disinterested in the history of Louisiana in the mid-1800s. I found it fascinating to read about the Yellow Fever epidemic that hit the region during 1856, which drove many of New Orleans' wealthy residents to seek sanctuary on the seemingly safe ocean front retreat of Isle Derniere for the summer. We are introduced to about six sets of characters during this initial portion of the book, and it does take a bit of effort to keep everyone straight as the book progresses into the storm's fury. The introductory chapters also devote a few pages to the meteorology of how hurricanes work, and the competing theories of the time. These pages do a good job giving the necessary background to understand what happened to Isle Derniere.

A survival and adventure tale
When we reach the main portion of the book, Sallenger presents a fast-paced and riveting description of some remarkable survival tales from this great disaster. We hear the story of how the hurricane's winds gradually tore apart all the homes and hotels on Isle Derniere, leaving the hundreds of people at the mercy of the storm surge. Many were swept away, but some survived harrowing voyages on pieces of debris during a dark and terrifying night. One group of survivors on the island managed to live by hanging on to a children's carousel, whose central post had been driven deep into the sand to anchor it. As the wind and water surged the around them, the desperate survivors hung onto the whirligig as it spun around. "The twirling and twisting, the dashing and splashing, the heeling and toeing, the flapping and floundering which ensued, would at any other time have produced a first-class comedy", one of the survivors relates. We also hear the remarkable tale of several ships caught in the storm. The crew of one ship driven aground by the storm leaped off their ship into the roiling storm surge in an attempt to seek shelter on the submerged barrier island. On another ship, "Captain Thompson could now view his cargo of livestock crowded onto the forward half of the main deck. The cows and horses and mules slid astern as the waves lifted and over-topped the bow. White water streamed through their hooves. The animals stumbled forward as the bow fell into holes and side to side as the vessel rolled".

A cautionary tale
The book ends with several chapters devoted to the aftermath of the hurricane. The survivors on the storm-ravaged island were not visited at first by relief ships, but by pirates eager to prey on the dead and the living. Relief eventually reached the 200 or so survivors on the island, and a romance leading to marriage is one happy outcome of the storm's wake.

Barrier islands are terrible places to build human settlements, and "the lesson of the flood was not forgotten," according to one of the survivors. The resorts on Isles Dernieres were never rebuilt. Sallenger notes that "such lessons are forgotten or ignored. In the last century and a half, the Village of Isle Derniere was one of only a few seafront communities that were destroyed or severely damaged in a storm and never rebuilt. The common practice is not only to rebuild structures on devastated coasts but also to make them bigger and more elaborate...We continue in the United States to develop extremely hazardous coastal locations, like the low-lying areas on the Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston, Texas, that were wiped out in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. The extreme vulnerability of such locations today will only increase as the world's seas rise."

Figure 2. Graphic from Island in a Storm, showing the long-term deterioration of Isle Derniere into multiple islands, now called Isles Dernieres. The island lost 78% of its land area between 1888 and 1988, and the remains of the island migrated 2/3 of a mile northwards. Further destruction of the islands has been arrested by a large-scale dredging project that adds mud and shells from the nearby sea bottom. Image credit: Coasts in Crisis, USGS Circular 1075, 1990.

Sallenger's first-class story-telling of the remarkable tales of survival during the Last Island Hurricane make this a book well worth reading. My only gripe is that the book could have benefited from better graphics than the few black-and-white figures that are of mediocre quality. Nevertheless, Island in a Storm rates 3 1/2 stars (out of four). It's $16.47 from Amazon.com.

I'll have a new post Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning, when I plan to discuss why some El Niño episodes in recent years have had high Atlantic hurricane activity associated with them. As you may have guessed, there is no Atlantic tropical activity worth mentioning, and no models are predicting tropical storm formation over the next seven days.

Jeff Masters

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.