Describing Romeo and Juliet’s attraction as “star-crossed” sounds romantic, but Shakespeare was just calling the situation as he saw it. If you check the origins of the word “disaster”, you’ll find that it amounts to something like “against the stars or fate”.
Attendees at Saturday’s Round Rock Reads! event at the La Frontera Barnes and Noble heard Mike Cox (author of Texas Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival) recount numerous instances in which fortune, chemistry, or meteorology produced catastrophic milestones in the state’s history. Cox’s chronology dates all the way back to a lost Spanish fleet in 1554 and includes the 1900 Galveston flood, the 1916 Paris fire, the 1937 New London school explosion, and the 1953 Waco tornado, among many others.
These accounts offer the kind of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction spectacle that guarantees a riveting read. And the incidents aren’t merely fascinating and sad. In some cases, they are also tragic in the Shakespearean sense: a fatal flaw in character, judgment, or priorities shapes decisions contributing to the worst possible outcome. The 1900 Galveston flood (also chronicled in this year’s Round Rock Reads! selection, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History) presents just such an example. True, forecasting technology back then didn’t generate the wealth of data we have today, but bureau politics and self-interest prevented the utilization of vital climatological data that was available.
Some disasters have left a legacy of progress and innovation, e.g., the use of radar detection following the Waco tornado. As a consequence of the New London explosion, a sulphur-scented additive now instantly signals the presence of natural gas. And speaking of legacies, Cox notes the presence of a young reporter named Walter Cronkite at the New London site.
I found both abovementioned books fascinating, and here’s a third title to intrigue you: Stephen Puleo’s Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. It’s not about Texas, but it is true. I can only imagine what Shakespeare would have thought of that one.