My friends and colleagues call me the “Queen of Natural Disasters” because I love to write about nature in all her fury. My sixth-grade teacher sparked my interest in disasters when she shared with the class a National Geographic article on the ancient Roman city, Pompeii. An eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ACE had buried Pompeii in a thick layer of ash and cinders. In modern times archeologists excavated the city, revealing the forms of the victims killed by the eruption. I was fascinated by the images of people frozen in motion and from that point on I was hooked.
Our restless planet gives me plenty of material to write about—volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, hurricanes floods, and fire. Sometimes the losses resulting from these events are small—fallen trees, disruptions in power. At other times, the losses are staggering—whole towns or cities destroyed. Yet from such catastrophes emerge stories of stunning human resilience, of suffering overcome by courage, ingenuity, stamina, and luck. These are the stories that fascinate me. I want to know more about how people survive against tremendous odds.
This book tells the dramatic stories of thirteen natural disasters. It investigates what caused them and how people survived them. What makes this particular book special is that the survivors describe their experiences in their own words. The challenge of writing it was in obtaining eyewitness accounts that were clear and gripping, and that would grab the attention of young people.
I became an amateur detective, employing the same techniques a private eye uses to track down missing people. I focused on three main sources of eyewitness testimony:
• survivors whom I interviewed
• letters, diaries, and transcripts found in historical societies and libraries, and
• old newspapers and magazines with first-person accounts.
I began my search in my local library, then I branched out to libraries and historical societies across the country, contacting them by phone, fax, or e-mail.
Initially, I thought getting eyewitness testimonies would be the easiest part of the research. I would use published accounts to identify the people I was interested in and then I would track them down through phone books. However, all of the people I wanted to talk to had survived disasters that had taken place 20 years ago or more. The only person for whom my plan worked was Jerry Aqualina, curator of the Buffalo Zoo.
I came across his story in White Death: Blizzard of ‘77 by Erno Rossi, which described a catastrophic blizzard that had struck Buffalo, New York, in 1977. The book included a section about Mr. Aqualina’s phenomenal efforts to get the zoo animals fed and to prevent them from escaping. Lucky for me, Mr. Aqualina still worked at the zoo and was willing to be interviewed. His story appears on pages 86 to 88.
To round out my chapter on the Buffalo Blizzard, I telephoned the public relations office of the Buffalo Police Department. I asked if there were any officers on the force who had participated in rescues during the storm. That’s how I found Chief Larry Ramunno, whose heroics are recorded on pages 84 to 85.
The Good Friday Earthquake roared through Alaska in 1964 and inflicted severe damage on the city of Anchorage. So I contacted the Anchorage Museum of History and Art and asked archivist Diane Brenner if she knew any quake survivors who had been kids at the time of the disaster. Diane referred me to Sharon Abbot, the museum’s curator of education, who in turn referred me to Bob Lloyd. I interviewed Mr. Lloyd by phone, and his story appears on page 20.
I came across an article by Tay Pryor Thomas in the July 1964 issue of National Geographic magazine. In the article Mrs. Thomas describes the terror she and her children, Anne and Dave, had experienced when their house collapsed and plunged over a cliff during the Good Friday earthquake. I couldn’t find Mrs. Thomas in the Anchorage phone directory. But another associate of Ms. Brenner—Jim Gottstein—helped me reach Dave Thomas in Alaska. Dave connected me with his sister Anne in New Hampshire. You can read Anne’s amazing account on page 21 to 23.
While researching the Great Flash Flood of Big Thompson Canyon in Colorado, I learned that many people had escaped the raging waters by climbing the steep, rock walls of the canyon, finding refuge on narrow ledges. One account stated that survivors had to share this high ground with thousands of rattlesnakes that had escaped the rising water. Now this was a story I wanted to share with my readers! But I couldn’t find any other mention of rattlesnakes, except one about a pet goat that had been bitten by a rattler the day of the flood.
Looking for more details, I called the Larimer County Sheriff’s Department in Colorado, where I was referred to two people who had been active in the rescue effort. Neither had heard of any human encounters with rattlesnakes during the flood, but one of my contacts suggested that I speak with John Lippert, a deputy sheriff who had survived the flood by scaling the canyon walls. Unfortunately, he quashed the rattlesnake angle, but he provided me with a thrilling description of his own adventure, which is detailed on pages 107, 108, and 111.
I was disappointed that I couldn’t use the rattlesnake story, but I know that some students use my books as references for reports. Therefore, I have a responsibility to them to verify my information and make my writing as accurate as possible.
During the time I was contacting survivors, I was also speaking in schools. In my talks I tried to show students what professional writers of nonfiction have in common with student authors.
At the end of one talk, a girl asked me, “Why do you write mainly about disasters?”
“Because they interest me,” I replied.
“You must be really sick,” she said. “Only a sick person would spend so much time on such a morbid topic.”
I left the school wondering if my books really were just morbid accounts. But the very next day I interviewed Betty Nelson, an Alaskan woman whose seaside village had been severely damaged by a tsunami. She told me that before the tsunami struck, the water had drained out of the bay, exposing rocks on the seafloor that she had never seen before.
“Normally I would have been tempted to go out and explore,” she said. “But I had once read about how people in Hawaii had dashed out to pick up fish and shells when the same thing happened there. These people drowned when a giant wave rushed in and reclaimed the bay.”
What a marvelous thing to hear! Books about disasters are not just morbid tales. They really save lives. You can read Mrs. Nelson’s account on pages 24 to 25.
For me, the stories in this book show that the power of the human spirit is equal to the unexpected challenges that nature presents it. I hope you find them as compelling as I did.
Carole G. Vogel