Life and Death Decisions

I am in the midst of reading a book that has a theme that has reminded me of some other books. It is the story of a storm that happened one September day 120 years ago, and of a city that to this day has never quite recovered from it. It is a story of the deadliest hurricane in history and how people in Galveston, TX reacted to it.

Galveston and Houston were in a rivalry as to who would become the primary seaport of Texas.

A hurricane determined the winner.

Somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 of Galveston’s citizens would not survive this storm. It was such that in the storm’s aftermath, one could see bodies floating 100 miles out in the Gulf.

In reading about how the citizens reacted, I was struck by another book I reviewed here sometime ago. The main thing I learned from this book is that our minds are “wired” to the past experiences and predisposed to make current decisions based on those past experiences.

Only what if the current situation is unlike anything known from the past? Like nothing we have experienced? Or it is magnitudes worse?

Picture yourself on another September morning 101 years later near the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, and an airliner has slammed into the building below you. It has knocked out the elevators, all 4 of which were in the center of the building, and the stairwell is pretty much destroyed.

You remembered that 8 years earlier under a somewhat different scenario a helicopter came to rescue people on the roof.

Do you head towards the roof with 100 other people and hope – or expect – that rescue or try, against all advice, to brave the stairwells?

Only a handful of people out of so many who were above the crash site in those buildings survived, and what they did what was against the advice of so many. This book also tells of other instances.

If you are a sea captain and know a storm is coming, do you still head out to sea or stay in port? One such captain, based on the 800 voyages he made in the Gulf in his career, made the decision to head to sea, and encountered 150 mph winds and 75 foot waves.

If you are on a train heading into Galveston, and this storm is coming in so fast that the tracks are already under water with the train stopping, do you wait in the train for the storm to subside or brave the elements and try the hike to a distant lighthouse?

Those were live-or-die decisions.

I have enjoyed the books of Erik Larson. I have read books of his on the opening of the Chicago World’s Fair and a notorious serial killer who was plying his trade at the same time in the city, an American ambassador and his family sent to 1933 Berlin, the voyage of a doomed passenger liner, and before this book, the trials of Winston Churchill during Britain’s dark days in 1940.

He brings history to life, and his historical research is amazing.

And when faced with a stressful decision that may mean life and death, sometimes it is best to take a moment and “step outside the box” and examine things not from your perspective but that of an outsider looking in.


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