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

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

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by Erik Larson

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At the dawn of the twentieth century, a great confidence suffused America. Isaac Cline was one of the era's new men, a scientist who believed he knew all there was to know about the motion of clouds and the behavior of storms. The idea that a hurricane could damage the city of Galveston, Texas, where he was based, was to him preposterous, "an absurd delusion." It was…  See more details below


At the dawn of the twentieth century, a great confidence suffused America. Isaac Cline was one of the era's new men, a scientist who believed he knew all there was to know about the motion of clouds and the behavior of storms. The idea that a hurricane could damage the city of Galveston, Texas, where he was based, was to him preposterous, "an absurd delusion." It was 1900, a year when America felt bigger and stronger than ever before. Nothing in nature could hobble the gleaming city of Galveston, then a magical place that seemed destined to become the New York of the Gulf.

That August, a strange, prolonged heat wave gripped the nation and killed scores of people in New York and Chicago. Odd things seemed to happen everywhere: A plague of crickets engulfed Waco. The Bering Glacier began to shrink. Rain fell on Galveston with greater intensity than anyone could remember. Far away, in Africa, immense thunderstorms blossomed over the city of Dakar, and great currents of wind converged. A wave of atmospheric turbulence slipped from the coast of western Africa. Most such waves faded quickly. This one did not.

In Cuba, America's overconfidence was made all too obvious by the Weather Bureau's obsession with controlling hurricane forecasts, even though Cuba's indigenous weathermen had pioneered hurricane science. As the bureau's forecasters assured the nation that all was calm in the Caribbean, Cuba's own weathermen fretted about ominous signs in the sky. A curious stillness gripped Antigua. Only a few unlucky sea captains discovered that the storm had achieved an intensity no man alive had ever experienced.

In Galveston, reassured by Cline's belief that no hurricane could seriously damage the city, there was celebration. Children played in the rising water. Hundreds of people gathered at the beach to marvel at the fantastically tall waves and gorgeous pink sky, until the surf began ripping the city's beloved beachfront apart. Within the next few hours Galveston would endure a hurricane that to this day remains the nation's deadliest natural disaster. In Galveston alone at least 6,000 people, possibly as many as 10,000, would lose their lives, a number far greater than the combined death toll of the Johnstown Flood and 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

And Isaac Cline would experience his own unbearable loss.

Meticulously researched and vividly written, Isaac's Storm is based on Cline's own letters, telegrams, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the hows and whys of great storms. Ultimately, however, it is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets nature's last great uncontrollable force. As such, Isaac's Storm carries a warning for our time.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble, Inc.
The winds were mild; the skies were clear. On Friday, September 7th, 1900, most of the thirty seven thousand residents of Galveston were looking forward to a quiet weekend. Within two days, however, more than a fifth of them would be dead, and their city of splendid homes & broad clean streets, their city of oleanders and roses and palms would be swept away or reduced to rubble. In hardcover, Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm brought the devastating Galveston hurricane of 1900 to present consciousness. This paperback edition will honor the centennial of this tragic event, the greatest disaster in American history.

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Washington, D.C.
Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union
Houston, Texas

Do you hear anything about Galveston?
Willis L. Moore,
Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau

The Beach
September 8, 1900

Throughout the night of Friday, September 7, 1900, Isaac Monroe Cline found himself waking to a persistent sense of something gone wrong. It was the kind of feeling parents often experienced and one that no doubt had come to him when each of his three daughters was a baby. Each would cry, of course, and often for astounding lengths of time, tearing a seam not just through the Cline house but also, in that day of open windows and unlocked doors, through the dew-sequined peace of his entire neighborhood. On some nights, however, the children cried only long enough to wake him, and he would lie there heart-struck, wondering what had brought him back to the world at such an unaccustomed hour. Tonight that feeling returned.
Most other nights, Isaac slept soundly. He was a creature of the last turning of the centuries when sleep seemed to come more easily. Things were clear to him. He was loyal, a believer in dignity, honor, and effort. He taught Sunday school. He paid cash, a fact noted in a directory published by the Giles Mercantile Agency and meant to be held in strictest confidence. The small red book fit into a vest pocket and listed nearly all Galveston's established citizens--its police officers, bankers, waiters, clerics, tobacconists, undertakers, tycoons, and shipping agents--and rated them for credit-worthiness, basing this appraisal on secret reports filed anonymously by friends and enemies. An asterisk beside a name meant trouble, "Inquire at Office," and marred the fiscal reputations of such people as Joe Amando, tamale vendor; Noah Allen, attorney; Ida Cherry, widow; and August Rollfing, housepainter. Isaac Cline got the highest rating, a "B," for "Pays Well, Worthy of Credit." In November of 1893, two years after Isaac arrived in Galveston to open the Texas Section of the new U.S. Weather Bureau, a government inspector wrote: "I suppose there is not a man in the Service on Station Duty who does more real work than he. . . . He takes a remarkable degree of interest in his work, and has a great pride in making his station one of the best and most important in the country, as it is now."
Upon first meeting Isaac, men found him to be modest and self-effacing, but those who came to know him well saw a hardness and confidence that verged on conceit. A New Orleans photographer captured this aspect in a photograph that is so good, with so much attention to the geometries of composition and light, it could be a portrait in oil. The background is black; Isaac's suit is black. His shirt is the color of bleached bone. He has a mustache and goatee and wears a straw hat, not the rigid cake-plate variety, but one with a sweeping scimitar brim that imparts to him the look of a French painter or riverboat gambler. A darkness suffuses the photograph. The brim shadows the top of his face. His eyes gleam from the darkness. Most striking is the careful positioning of his hands. His right rests in his lap, gripping what could be a pair of gloves. His left is positioned in midair so that the diamond on his pinkie sparks with the intensity of a star.
There is a secret embedded in this photograph. For now, however, suffice it to say the portrait suggests vanity, that Isaac was aware of himself and how he moved through the day, and saw himself as something bigger than a mere recorder of rainfall and temperature. He was a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in a rheumatoid knee. Isaac personally had encountered and explained some of the strangest atmospheric phenomena a weatherman could ever hope to experience, but also had read the works of the most celebrated meteorologists and physical geographers of the nineteenth century, men like Henry Piddington, Matthew Fontaine Maury, William Redfield, and James Espy, and he had followed their celebrated hunt for the Law of Storms. He believed deeply that he understood it all.
He lived in a big time, astride the changing centuries. The frontier was still a living, vivid thing, with Buffalo Bill Cody touring his Wild West Show to sellout crowds around the globe, Bat Masterson a sportswriter in New Jersey, and Frank James opening the family ranch for tours at fifty cents a head. But a new America was emerging, one with big and global aspirations. Teddy Roosevelt, flanked by his Rough Riders, campaigned for the vice presidency. U.S. warships steamed to quell the Boxers. There was fabulous talk of a great American-built canal that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific, a task at which Vicomte de Lesseps and the French had so catastrophically failed. The nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence. It was a time, wrote Sen. Chauncey Depew, one of the most prominent politicians of the age, when the average American felt "four-hundred-percent bigger" than the year before.
There was talk even of controlling the weather--of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain.
In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Isaac's Storm 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 115 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Faysie-May More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Since I live in Galveston and having  been here thru Ike, I found this book very vivid, emotional excellent!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Compelling and full of period details
RaiderRealm More than 1 year ago
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.
Granx6 More than 1 year ago
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! Granx6
fish2006 More than 1 year ago
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.
footdoc81 More than 1 year ago
A good read as are all Larson's works. Very enjoyable
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well researched. It held my attention great book
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting and compelling story of the hurricane and how it affected the area. Love how the author puts the story together.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting
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The detail in this book is amazing and very interesting. I recommend it highly.
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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.