Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in Historyby Erik Larson, Isaac Monroe Cline
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… 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.
Isaac Cline, one of the government's first professional weathermen, predicted with confidence that hurricanes posed little threat to the town of Galveston, Texas.
He discovered how wrong he was on September 8, 1900, when the bodies of dead children started floating into the train station. By the end of the day, the deadliest natural disaster in American history had claimed the lives of at least 8,000 people and destroyed thousands of homes in the bustling seaside town.
Isaac's Storm, drawing on eyewitness accounts, meteorological research, and Cline's own reports, weaves a tale of that fateful hurricane and the families it touched. When the ocean swells descended on the island, children were ripped out of windows, restaurants collapsed with diners inside, and Cline himself narrowly survived by climbing aboard floating wreckage and drifting out to sea.
The residents of Galveston received virtually no warning from the country's newly created weather service, which failed to recognize the storm's severity. When the rains started, children danced in the puddles, built rafts, and teased pets into jumping off porches into water. Several hours later, they were swept away when the ocean came over the wharf and engulfed the buildings.
At the turn of the century, the nation was bolstered by advances in engineering and science and swollen with "technological confidence." There was speculation that man could control the weather with cannon blasts and forest fires. So how did the hurricane manage to elude the crackerjack team of men in the country's first weather bureau?
Isaac's Storm details the bureau's formation and its historic context. Critics of the U.S. Signal Corps, the agency in charge, were widespread at the time. Some argued that it was not the place of man to study the weather, which was God's province. Others, including Mark Twain, simply pointed out that they weren't very good at it.
The storm, which started forming over Africa, passed over the Atlantic, gathering force as it approached Cuba. Weathermen there recognized its deadly potential, but their American counterparts were reluctant to be criticized for causing a panic. They also failed to notice when it took an odd left turn and started heading toward the Gulf of Mexico rather than the Atlantic states, where it was predicted to hit.
With harrowing detail, Isaac's Storm describes the events of that day and the fateful errors in judgment that led up to it. Blending meteorological science with history, it also offers an insightful look at American attitudes toward nature.
"They collected readings of temperature, pressure, and wind and based solely on those determined whether a storm existed or not.... Cuban meteorologists had the same instruments as their American counterparts, and took the same measurements, but read into them vastly greater potential for evil. The Cubans wrote of hunches and beliefs, sunsets and foreboding. Where the Americans saw numbers, the Cubans saw poetry," writes author Erik Larson.
Isaac Cline watched the falling barometer in Galveston, but nothing in the daily dispatches suggested the storm was headed in his direction. His brother Joseph, also employed by the weather bureau, watched the ocean's ominous signs and begged to differ. But for a few sea captains caught in the storm far offshore, nobody knew it had turned into a monster until it raked Galveston, precariously built on a narrow island spit.
When the storm subsided, thousands of bodies were loaded on barges and taken out to sea. The death toll stands higher than that from any other hurricane or natural disaster in American history, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. By detailing the events, errors, and consequences of that historic day, Isaac's Storm serves as a reminder that the forces of nature can defy logic and astound scientists in any era.
The Christian Science Monitor
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.
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."
NY Times Book Review
Daniel Hays, author of My Old Man and the Sea
"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
Read an Excerpt
Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union
Do you hear anything about Galveston?
Willis L. Moore,
Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau
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 citizensits police officers, bankers, waiters, clerics, tobacconists, undertakers, tycoons, and shipping agentsand 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 weatherof subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain.
In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.
Meet the Author
Erik Larson, a contributor to Time magazine, is the author of The Naked Consumer and Lethal Passage (Crown, 1994). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, and other national magazines. He lives in Seattle.
- Seattle, Washington
- Date of Birth:
- January 1, 1954
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- B.A., University of Pennsylvania, 1976; M.S., Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, 1978
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