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But if a major hurricane does menace the New England coast, Isaac's Storm will not be the most comfortable book to have by the bedside as the wind shrieks and the waves rise.
The storm in question - its designation as Isaac's is another question - is the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, on Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900. It was a storm of truly frightful proportions, turning a thriving, bustling city into a wasteland of rubble in which were buried the bodies of as many as 8,000 of its residents.
Erik Larson's accomplishment is to have made this great-storm story a very human one - thanks to his use of the large number of survivors' accounts - without ignoring the hurricane itself.
The storm crossed Cuba on Sept. 4 and was predicted to turn north toward the Atlantic coast. Instead, it steered across the Gulf of Mexico and made landfall just south of Galveston. The conventional wisdom of the time held that Galveston's sloping offshore shelf would temper the force of storm-driven waves, and there are accounts of children playing in the surf just hours before the hurricane-force winds drove the sea over the beach and far into the city.
By early evening, Larson writes, ''the sea had erected an escarpment of wreckage three stories tall and several miles long'' that was ''so tall, so massive that it acted as a kind of seawall'' - except that as the waves shoved it forward, ''it scraped the city clean of all structures and all life.''
This is clearly more than ''Isaac's storm.'' Building the story around one character is a useful device, but perhaps it was done mainly as an (over-)reaction to the impersonality of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.'' True, Isaac Cline is an easily identifiable character, and there is a serious question about whether, as head of the weather bureau, he fatally underestimated the potential for destruction from a storm hitting Galveston. But curiously, the story seems to stall whenever Cline becomes the focus - and too often Larson has to pump up his central character with ''what was Isaac thinking'' speculation. And frankly, Larson's bit players too often upstage Cline.
Among the incidents that capture the physical and emotional impact of the storm surge is that experienced by merchant (and amateur meteorologist) Samuel O. Young. His house was six blocks in from the beachfront, and his family was safely out of town, so Young stayed, watching the storm's progress from his second-floor windows. Curious about ''a heavy thumping that seemed to come from a downstairs bedroom,'' he went to investigate. Looking down the stairwell, he saw that the water had risen almost to the top step. ''The heavy thudding ... had to be furniture. A bureau, perhaps, bumping against the ceiling as the water rose and fell.''
By that time, in the early evening, only one other house still stood in Young's immediate neighborhood: that of a family named Youens. As Young watched, he saw it ''begin a slow pirouette.'' In his account, ''Mr. Youens' house rose like a huge steamboat, was swept back and suddenly disappeared.'' Knowing that the parents and their two children had remained inside, he said, ''my feelings were indescribable as I saw them go.''
And there are dozens of other vividly recounted incidents that could be singled out to illustrate the dimensions of the story and Larson's skillful telling of it.
It is a tribute to his control of his material - and of his writing - that there is only one moment at which he seems to have allowed his emotional response to overtake the story.
''Suddenly,'' Larson writes, ''the prospect of watching their children die became very real'' for families trapped in their houses. ''Whom did you save? Did you seek to save one child, or try to save all, at the risk of ultimately saving none? ... And if you saved none, what then? How did you go on?''
The sophisticated reader may find the emotionalism unsettling, a lapse in literary judgment. But ultimately, as the accounts of just such situations multiply thumping like Mr. Young's furniture at the reader's consciousness - that series of questions universalizes the account of one storm in one place at one time. The storm, the place, the time, after all, could be here and now.
— Boston Globe
In a crucial scene in Isaac's Storm, Erik Larson's bestselling history of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, meteorologist Joseph Cline warns some residents that they should evacuate before a storm hits their town. But another meteorologist -- his older brother, Isaac -- insists they should stay. The debate takes place on Sept. 8, 1900 -- shortly before the hurricane slams into the thriving Texas town and kills thousands of people in a cataclysm that remains the most fatality-heavy natural disaster in U.S. history.
Isaac's Storm takes place in an era when the field of meteorology was just getting off the ground. While weather-watchers like Isaac and Joseph Cline had a strong faith in their scientific abilities, they obviously didn't have the technology that could have blessed their forecasts with more accuracy.
Despite his failings as a scientist, it is Isaac rather than his brother who has gone down in Galveston-area legend as the Paul Revere who warned residents to leave before the hurricane raged into town. Nearly two weeks after the storm, the New York Evening Sun noted that "the warnings which were sent out by Dr. [Isaac] Cline are said to have saved thousands of lives along the coast."
But in the new book's account, Isaac is an incompetent rather than a soothsayer, misreading the fatal portents in the atmosphere. Now Larson, a Time magazine contributor who started researching his book five years ago, has run into some local resistance to his revisionist take.
Meteorologist Lew Fincher, vice president of the Houston chapter of the American Meteorological Society, thinks Larson has made Isaac a scapegoat. Fincher defends Isaac's role in the hurricane: "I think he studied everything he could. He was going by the knowledge that they had with them in the bureau."
According to Isaac's Storm, the two brothers barely spoke after the storm; by the time they both died -- within a week of each other in 1955 -- they hadn't been in touch "for years." But Fincher says that he has read both brothers' journals and that Larson overdramatized their relationship: "I think that he was trying to come up with a personal conflict to make the book more human. I've read a lot on both of those guys, and there's nothing out of the ordinary that any brothers wouldn't have experienced."
According to Fincher, Larson neglected to read an account in a book that was published shortly after the storm, The Story of the Galveston Flood, in which the brothers are quoted speaking of each other quite warmly. The cold, stilted tone of their letters he shrugs off as a combination of their very formal Victorian higher education and their military background. On a scientific note, he takes exception to Larson's classification of the hurricane as a Category 5 storm: "I'd call it a 4, maybe a 3." (Nevertheless, he considers Larson's book "a great read.")
Larson, however, is adamant in his insistence that his reporting is dead on. "There's pretty good evidence that the legend is not completely accurate," he said on the phone from his Seattle home. "Most likely [Isaac] did go to the beach and warn some people -- but did he warn 6,000? I don't see how that is possible." Alluding to documents he found at the National Archives, he said that two accounts point to Isaac's telling some people to stay in Galveston.
As for the strain in the brothers' relationship, Larson says that he assumed it was common knowledge and insists that he had no authorial motive to bend the truth: "It would have been an equally good story if they hadn't have been rivals, but you've got to call them as you see them." Larson says that one formidable expert, Neil Frank (whom Fincher calls "the Babe Ruth of hurricanes"), mentioned the rivalry to him. When pressed for the source of his information about the epic silence between the brothers, he referred to Frank and to an article in the Southwest Quarterly. (Neither is cited in the book as a source for the information.) Larson maintains that he, like Fincher, read the journals of both men very closely and that the tension is unmistakable. According to Larson, although Joseph endured the storm with his brother, his lengthy account of it never mentions Isaac. "It's either funny or very tragic," Larson says.
As far as his classification of the storm, Larson concedes the controversy but stands by his reasoning. "Officially it was a 4," he says. "Having spent two and a half years of intense research on this storm, I'm convinced it was a 5. The bottom line is that no one can know for sure." (After all, nobody back then had Air Force planes to monitor oncoming storms.) Larson also says that he gave the manuscript to Hugh E. Willoughby, a leader in the field of hurricane research, and Willoughby had no problem with the classification. ("Any lingering errors are entirely my fault, not his," Larson's acknowledgment notes, using the standard formula.)
The meteorological journal Weatherwise cited a host of what it deemed factual errors in Isaac's Storm, which didn't prevent it from giving the book a rave review. Putting it in a class with Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air -- hugely popular books that have also been called into question for their accuracy -- Weatherwise calls Larson's narrative "reading at its best."
"Isaac's Storm so fully swept me away into another place, another time that I didn't want it to end. I braced myself from the monstrous winds, recoiled in shock at the sight of flailing children floating by, and shook my head at the hubris of our scientists who were so convinced that they had the weather all figured out. Erik Larson's writing is luminous, the story absolutely gripping. If there is one book to read as we enter a new millennium, it's Isaac's Storm, a tale that reminds us that there are forces at work out there well beyond our control, and maybe even well beyond our understanding."
— Alex Kotlowitz, author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here
"There is electricity in these pages, from the crackling wit and intelligence of the prose to the thrillingly described terrors of natural mayhem and unprecedented destruction. Though brimming with the subtleties of human nature, the nuances of history, and the poetry of landscapes, Isaac's Storm still might best be described as a sheer page turner."
— Melissa Faye Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing
Posted February 21, 2010
I love to read history books, however some can be hard to get into. This is not the case with this book! I read it in less than a week. It was very well written and gave a gripping account of a horrible storm. It really makes you realize how lucky we are today to have advance hurricane warnings!
8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2009
This was very well written with a great deal of historical research presented in a very readable, non-dry narrative. The book chronicles events leading up to and including accounts of the hurricane of 1900 that wiped out Galveston. It is seen in large part via the chief meteorologist there at the time. This is not the usual type of book I would read. I expected to be bored by the meteorology information, and though there was some in the first of the book I didn't find enthralling, it was worth reading to understand the whole picture. Once the actual hurricane accounts started, I couldn't put the book down! The 1900 hurricane in Galveston was a tragedy that could have been mitigated greatly in terms of massive loss of lives had only the warning signs been investigated. There was arrogance on the part of the main meteorologist in Galveston, and in addition there were also in-house political issues among U.S. weather service leaders and personnel that stifled communication or collaboration. The accounts of the survivors who lived through the hurricane are horrifying but riveting.
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 6, 2007
I couldn't help but read this once I saw it. My wifes grandfather survived the storm as in infant. He was was born in August of 1900 and the storm came the next month. His mother told him their two story home floated down the street with them in it. My mother in law gave me a pendulum clock that I am looking at. She said it floated in Angelo's restaurant. I can still see water stains on its face as I write this. I don't think I understood what people in my family knew about this event until I read Isaac's Storm. I go to Galveston and wonder why some many homes are being built on the beach.Don't they know what happened? It will happen sadly again. I survived Carla in the center of the storm in 1961 in Port Lavaca. I know what can happen. After Galveston and after New Orleans you would think others would know. They don't. Darrell Cameron Houston Resident
5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2008
Isaac's Storm was a great book. It takes place in Galveston, TX on September 8th and 9th, 1900. There was a hurricane offcoast and Washington DC told Isaac Cline that it was no threat, it was great weather, so he believed them. But he saw the ocean get worse and worried. When he figured out that this was a bad hurricane, it was too late for many people. The city was destroyed and about 6000 people were dead, including his wife and kid. Issac carried it on his shoulders that it was his fault, that he was careless once, and a horrible hurricane hit. This book's message is that man's faliure to predict when, where, and how a storm will hit can lead to a horrible ending. Isaac's Storm has 6 chapters, each one leading up to the storm. Each one, telling a little bit more about this misunderstanding, and Isaac's training. This book is perfect for teenagers and up. It is a great weather adventure story. I love this book, I think that it has a great balance between the actual storm and it's effects on so many people and the people that try to prevent storms like the category 5 hurricane that hit Galveston.
4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
I had always heard of this terrible hurricane and I wanted to read about the actual event. I did not expect this book to be so captivating and entertaining. The impending doom is an underlying current throughout the book. The author inserts many personal perspectives including the weather forecaster's family along with many other Galveston residents. The reader gets a visual and factual perspective of life at the turn of the century and the crude tools used to predict the weather. This lack of technology and lack of communication led to the deaths of over 10,000.
I recommend this book without any hesitation. The research is well done, the vision of life in 1900 and the unspeakable power of God's power is wonderfully presented by Mr. Larson.
3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 2, 2013
I could hardly stop reading this book. It was touching and horrifying at the same time as Mr. Larson told the story of the deadly Galveston Hurricane. He is very good at telling a story from brief documented facts. I've enjoyed all of his books and would recommend any of them. I learn so much history while enjoying a good read.
2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 22, 2013
Since I live in Galveston and having been here thru Ike, I found this book very vivid, emotional excellent!
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Posted January 28, 2012
Posted December 8, 2011
This is story of a tragic event in American history. The book brought history to life and keeps you in engaged to the very end. This book made me appreciate weather stations even more.
2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 7, 2014
I actually heard this in the audio version and had to have the book for myself! I was hooked from the beginning, anyone interested in history, this is a MUST READ!
1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 2, 2013
Who would have thought a book about weather forecasting could be so interesting?? I enjoy books that tell stories of little-known events or people that were part of much larger stories in our history and this book does just that. Larson's style of story-telling kept me engaged from start to finish!
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Posted May 22, 2015
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Posted September 27, 2014
Very interesting and compelling story of the hurricane and how it affected the area. Love how the author puts the story together.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 25, 2014
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Posted July 22, 2013
This is an amazingly well researched book. My husband and I read it just as we were leaving for a week in Galveston, and it certainly added another dimension to out trip.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 26, 2013
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