What God Hath Wrought: 6 Great Books About Natural Disasters and Why You Should Read Them

shelved under Nature and Beach Reads

I write historical fiction because I’m fascinated by the depth and complexity of the human experience; I write fast-paced books because that’s what keeps me turning the pages when the rest of life is trying to pull me away. It can be challenging to make a true story sound like the truth; as Mark Twain said, “Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

But Mother Nature is the ultimate thriller writer, and doesn't have to follow any rules. Because I’ve lived in and traveled to places that experience a disproportionately large number of natural disasters, I’ve developed a taste for (or perhaps I should say morbid interest in) tales of terror inspired by the earth itself. Here are six of my favorites:


F5: Devastation, Survival, and the Most Violent Tornado Outbreak of the 20th Century

by Mark Levine

When I was a kid growing up in Florida, I saw a tornado being born; I saw its dark gray tail reach down from the sky, touch the land, grow into a funnel, and then roar towards me. I've been hypnotized by tornadoes ever since. This book is perfect for people who, like me, are terrified of tornadoes but can't look away. The book documents the "Day of Days" in meteorological history when, on April 3, 1974, a gigantic storm raged through the Southern and Midwestern United States and spawned almost 150 separate tornadoes, a half dozen of which reached the "Finger of God" category of "F5," meaning they had sustained winds of over 260 miles per hour (illustrating the meaning of the word "smote" in what must have been its original biblical context). Hundreds of people were killed, and the loss of property was estimated in the billions, back when a billion dollars was still a lot of money. The author tells a gripping tale and incorporates some intense personal narratives, although he does go a bit overboard trying to pull in certain political events to create some sort of mystical connection between the weather and human existence. Nonetheless, it's pretty riveting stuff.


Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

by Erik Larson

Yup, I've lived through several nasty hurricanes, too; and a "class 5" typhoon in China, but nothing as devastating as this big one. Before writing his better-known The Devil in the White City, Larson wrote this book about a massive hurricane that hit the Texas coast in 1900 and killed close to 6,000 people. Larson writes with a journalist's eye for detail and a skilled novelist's grasp of timing. The descriptions are harrowing, but in some ways the more upsetting aspect of the story is the fact that the people responsible for protecting the Texas coast just plain blew it, showing once again how little we learn from our mistakes when it comes to dealing with Mother Nature.


The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America

by Timothy Egan

Having seen the island of Catalina blaze like a volcano emerging from the ocean, and watched the hills of Malibu spew smoke and belch fire like an irate dragon, I've developed a new respect for what the Forest Rangers do. In 1910 the largest wildfire in American history torched more than three million acres across the American northwest in just two days, killing nearly one hundred people and laying waste to an area bigger than the state of Connecticut. But The Big Burn isn't just a moving and compelling read about a massive fire and the attempt to stop it; it's also the story of the birth of the national Forest Service, and how the rangers literally went through a "trial by fire" five years after its creation that ultimately helped garner support for the forest service and the national park system. Egan relies on a tremendous number of eye-witness accounts, and balances the micro picture of the fire with the story behind the politics of the early conservation movement. Fabulous.


The Johnstown Flood

by David McCullough

This book haunted me for weeks. No, months. No, it still haunts me. My children went to a summer camp on the banks of Lake Toxaway in North Carolina, once the playground of the Titans of American industry such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone and John D. Rockefeller, until one day when the dam they'd built to form the "lake for leisure" collapsed in 1916, just like the one in Johnstown that failed in 1889. The Johnstown flood was technically not a "natural" disaster, but in the same way that the destruction of New Orleans was caused by faulty engineering of the levees, the dam in Johnstown was challenged by Mother Nature and found lacking; the furious river it unleashed drowned the entire town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania and its environs. Over 2,000 people died, and nearly 30,000 were left homeless; the flood also presented the first test for the newly-formed American Red Cross. David McCullough, the man whose book reminded the nation that John Adams was a national hero and whose voice narrates all of the coolest PBS documentaries is at his story-telling best here. He relies on dramatic first-person accounts of the survivors, and relates them in a way that is gripping without being overly gruesome. It still makes me mad that the wealthy members of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, whose private dam drowned the Johnstown valley, were never held liable for the destruction. Those guys in Toxaway never had to pay up, either. I'm just saying...


Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883

by Simon Winchester

I've climbed on volcanoes in Costa Rica and in Indonesia, and still vividly remember the awesome spectacle of Mount St. Helen's explosion. Then one day my son the budding geologist comes home from school and tells me he's just learned that there's a huge volcano under Yellowstone that will someday destroy the continent, so now volcanoes have moved to the top of my list of scary phenomena. Add to that the eruption that recently shut down air travel in Europe, and I think it's time volcanoes started getting more attention. Stylistically, this book reads like a cross between a lavish Michener novel and a first-rate thriller, with enough scientific information to satisfy the most erudite reader without boring a layperson. By the time the massive volcano explodes (resulting in deaths of over 40,000 people, mostly drowned in the resultant tsunamis) you'll find yourself dreading the powers that lurk beneath the surface of the earth, but you'll also gain respect for the resilience of the human spirit.


Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America

by John M. Barry

Like most Americans I watched in horror during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as floodwaters destroyed huge sections of New Orleans, creating a scene of disaster and deprivation that we just didn't want to believe could happen in America. But then I read this book, and discovered that Katrina was yet another case of "déjà-vû all over again." The Great Depression brought on the New Deal, but the flood of 1927 first, quite literally, cleared the way; the lasting impact of this calamity was its effect on the American political landscape. In the same way that the government's response to Hurricane Katrina aroused intense anger that, coupled with a major economic downturn, triggered an enormous change of Who's In Charge and What We Will Allow Them To Do About This Mess We're In, this earlier disaster and the government's inept reaction to it engendered a complete transformation of American society. Barry does a great job of describing the terrifying events of the flood itself and the mismanagement that exacerbated it, but it's his follow-up of the sociological and political aftermath that sets this work apart from a typical disaster book.