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

by Erik Larson

Paperback, 1999




Crown (1999). 1st ed.


September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. Even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged by a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over 6,000 people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history-and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy. Using Cline's own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man's heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Thrilling, powerful, and unrelentingly suspenseful, Isaac's Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the uncontrollable force of nature.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Isaac Cline was a meteorologist in the fledgling National Weather Service on September 8, 1900, a day that turned on a dime and impacted over 6,000 lives in the Gulf town of Galveston, Texas. Erik Larson has written his trademark terrific narrative non-fiction account, using Cline’s own letters, telegraphs and reports, as well as the testimony of survivors of what is now known to be the greatest national disaster in American history. The most interesting part is that the hurricane that barreled down the Gulf and smashed head on into the Texas coast was never even identified as a hurricane.

I really enjoyed this account of how the National Weather Service bungled the prediction of the hurricane, bickered with the meteorologists in Cuba, whom they considered alarmists, and refused to admit their errors. The morning of the storm, Cline still wouldn’t call the gale force winds by the name hurricane. The arrogance of these scientists was incredible and the lives lost in the disaster heartbreaking but Larson was absolutely terrific in the telling of the story.

In 1891, Cline wrote a report stating that Galveston didn’t need a seawall because the chances of it being the target of a storm the magnitude of which a seawall would deem necessary just didn’t exist. It would never see a hurricane. That was just “absurd delusion.” The arrogance of the man was mind-boggling. And yet, on that September day in 1900, an immense hurricane unleashed its power on the population of this up and coming town:

”The storm’s trajectory made Galveston the victim of two storm surges, the first from the bay, and the second from the Gulf, and ensured moreover that the Gulf portion would be exceptionally severe.” (Page 198)

This is an unputdownable account of the arrogance of man’s belief in what he wants to believe and the sheer power of nature and very highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Erik Larson, who also wrote Devil in the White City (another phenomenal book) is an outstanding writer. I picked this book up and couldn't put it down. I was simply riveted to the story and to the way Larson presented it. Obviously the man's done his homework, if the last few pages of primary sources is any indication. But his prose is also very powerful & his organization well crafted. All told, even people whose first inclination when reading history is suggested is a "ugh!" would enjoy this book. I recommend it to anyone who can's one you should not miss.

The story of Isaac's storm is based on the 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston and left in its wake a 15-foot tidal surge and somewhere around 4000 people dead. The storm is chronicled from its beginning until it hits Galveston, which may sound kind of boring, but trust me; this storm is the major player in this book. It is also a story of Isaac Cline, who with his family lived in Galveston, and served as an officer for the U.S. Weather Service, where politics & petty rivalries led to a great deal of bureaucratic inertia which played a role in the thousands of deaths the hurricane left behind.

It is important to realize that at this time there was very little information available or even understood about the nature of hurricanes. What passed for science back then in this area was a great deal of speculation. The people who really understood hurricanes were those who lived in the Caribbean; but because of some problems with Cuba stemming from political rivalries & the war of 1898 (and because of the stupidity of the head of the Weather Service at the time), reports coming out of Cuba dealing with the 1900 hurricane were summarily dismissed as being too "passionate" and full of drama. Sad thing, too, because the Cubans predicted that the hurricane would turn into the Gulf and hit the coast of Texas.

I really don't want to spend a lot of time summarizing this book; it was one to be read and savored. After finishing this book earlier today, I bought a copy to keep at home in my non-fiction/history library. This is a fantastic story even though it is incredibly tragic. You will find that you are unable to put it down.
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LibraryThing member weird_O
It's hurricane season, and as Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas and threatened American's southern Atlantic coast (and while scientists corrected an infantile politician on the projected storm track), I spent time reading about a portentous hurricane that tiptoed noisily but without notice from the western coast of Africa across the Carribean and the Gulf of Mexico to practically obliterate Galveston, Texas. The year was 1900, and (weirdly) the landfall date was September 8 (I say weirdly because I completed my read on 9/6/19).

Looking on-line at archival photos taken following that (unnamed) storm was like looking at news photos of the Bahamas. (Isaac's Storm, sadly, has no photos and the map depicting the areas damaged by the storm is irritatingly out of sync with the narrative.) Here and there are scattered still-standing structures, some canted, most missing roofs, porches, and windows. The ground, roads, walkways all are covered layers deep with boards scattered every whichaway. Neither the text nor the photos can convey the stench of decaying corpses—not only human remains, but hundreds and hundreds of horses, family pets, livestock. The death toll can't be known. People were swept out to sea, buried beneath the rubble. The smell, the logistics, and public health concerns prompted on-the-spot burials and on-the-spot pyres

The focus of Erik Larson's narrative is just how this event happened, and most significantly, why there was no warning. The short answers: ignorance, folly, and hubris. For the long answers, do read the book. Even the most informed and thoughtful "experts" at the 19th century's close did not understand—at all— the science of hurricanes, cyclones, and tornados. But the "experts" were loath to project any uncertainty. What they didn't know killed a lot of people.

Two thumbs up.
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LibraryThing member Maya47Bob46
I remember the 1961 Galveston hurricane and the reports on television news by a young Dan Rather. Isaac's Storm is about the 1900 hurricane and the early days of what is now the National Weather Service. In 1900, the weather service was trying to introduce prediction into American life. Unfortunately, the early leaders - as well as Isaac Cline - were men convinced of their absolute rightness and ability. This book is not only the story of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, but also the sad tale of what happens when men of hubris refuse to listen to others. I am thinking here of the forecasters in Cuba who understood hurricanes quite well. I don't know if it was simply racism or xenophobia, but not paying attention was fatal for Galveston. I'm not sure destruction would have been prevented, but the city could have been evacuated.

I can't say this was an enjoyable read, but it certainly was a good one.
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LibraryThing member cm37107
To Read--Riveting, powerful, and unbearably suspenseful, Isaac's Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the great uncontrollable force of nature.
Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged in a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history--and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.… (more)
LibraryThing member Pamici
Tragic and fascinating story, well researched and laid out. The book does a good job of outlining the factors contributing to the scale and extent of the disaster. Unnecessarily lurid descriptions and outrageous conjecture marred an otherwise engaging book.
LibraryThing member mjgrogan
If I can refer to reading about the tragic situation of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane as “enjoyable” without seeming like an A-hole then I will. Larson – later author of the excellent book about the Columbian Exposition and the lunatic hotelier a few blocks away – can certainly reconstruct a story. In this case he utilizes memoirs and other documents of a select few survivors as well as Weather Bureau archives and the history of scientific inquiry into hurricanes to recreate the days surrounding this monstrous occurrence. His attention to detail (and educated speculation) renders the experience of inhabiting Galveston at that time – the exciting milieu of a burgeoning, cosmopolitan city abruptly transformed into a horrendous, putrefactive zone of disaster – quite powerfully. Secondary, but important themes include both the Industrial Age arrogance of man’s apparent dominance over nature, and the equally arrogant disregard by the fledgling US Weather Bureau of the forecasts of the more expert Cuban meteorologists (they were seemingly “backward islanders” who resorted to “hunches” and “psychoanalytical approaches” that, nonetheless typically proved more accurate than the “scientific” data produced by our US counterparts).

My primary critique is that, by utilizing the stories of just a handful of survivors, there’s something like a sensationalist gloss added to the story. I certainly don’t wish to downplay the sheer destructive magnitude of this event and the apparent loss of 19% or so of the inhabitants, but reading the events as apparently experienced by these select few, one would assume 80% to 90% of the population must have perished. He's writing about the vantage point of someone who's a sole-survivor of eight, floating on an upturned roof, scanning their neighborhood mid-storm, no one’s around and there’s like one building left – and then it inevitably breaks into pieces! The map in the front and the brief mention of death toll by neighborhood near the conclusion (10 to 21 percent) seem to contrast wildly with the narrative. But I’m sure that’s how it happened in the most vulnerable sections of town, and a more comprehensive presentation might have dragged on. This is certainly an engaging quick read.

And, at the very least, Larson feeds my constant desire for useless randomness with the fact that, because of much controversy, Arkansas had to finally pass a bill legislating the pronunciation of “Arkansaw” around 1882. Did y’all know that?
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LibraryThing member PCGator
Before the days of radar and the Weather Channel, hurricanes would strike full force with little or no warning. This book describes the deadliest of these storms, an unnamed but incredibly intense category 5 hurricane that struck Galveston in 1900. It is a fantastic account that I couldn't put down. I've only experienced a category 1 hurricane first-hand (Jeanne went right over Plant City in 2004), but this book gave me an appreciation for the power and terrifying nature of hurricanes that I just didn't have before. Gripping tale for any reader; an absolute must-read for weather geeks.… (more)
LibraryThing member Othemts
Larson's book The Devil in the White City was good enough to make my list of 100 Favorite Books of All Time, so I had high hopes for this book. This is of narrative nonfiction that tells the biography of meteorologist Isaac Cline and the birth of the National Weather Service. Cline was on duty in Gavelston, Texas in September 1900 when that city was hit by a hurricane leading to one of the most deadly natural disasters in American history. The life of Cline and the vivid firsthand accounts of the hurricane are fascinating, but overall I felt this book wasn't a very interesting addiction to the the popular history genre.
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LibraryThing member tloeffler
Fascinating account of the 1900 hurricane in Galveston TX, entwined with the background story of the local meteorologist Isaac Cline and meteorology in general at the turn of the century.
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
Isaac's Storm / Erik Larson
4.5 stars

September 8, 1900 in Galveston, Texas, Isaac Cline was the “weatherman”. The U.S. Weather Bureau knew a storm would hit, but no one (well, none of the Americans) had any idea how severe the hurricane would be.

The book starts with a combination of Isaac's life and some weather history mixed in. This part was a little bit slower, but once the hurricane hit, wow! The suspense was incredible! I did not want to put the book down. Like with Larsen's other books, his nonfiction reads like fiction. I think the hurricane and the aftermath are enough to raise my rating to above 4 stars, so 4-1/2 stars from me!
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LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Larson's recounting of the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas in 1900 is as brilliant as it is horrifying, and in many ways. By blending research from a multitude of sources with a dual focus on the people of Galveston and the other factors that played into making the storm a surprise--from departmental politics to faulty understandings of hurricanes on to science and incorrect assumptions--Larson built a compelling work.

In many ways, this is a horror story just so much as it is history or truth--so many things came together to make for this hurricane being the deadliest hurricane in US history. The idea that unknowns, natural forces, and human pride could come together in this fashion is terrifying in itself, but Larson puts so much work into bringing to life the faces and persons who were directly affected by this storm that the book takes on a larger and more human import. It reads like a novel, and yet it is built entirely of fact--fascinating, deadly facts.

This isn't a book I'll soon forget, if ever, and it's certainly one I'd recommend, though it's not an easy read, the subject is so severe.
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LibraryThing member creynolds
This had a lot of fascinating things about the storm and the confidence of the time in their forecasting and ability to weather severe storms. Negatives: Some of the narrative about Isaac Cline could have been cut back and the author jumped around a bit too much when he told individual stories so when he returned to give an update on people it was hard to remember who was who. Overall, very informative and a good history of one part of the U.S.… (more)
LibraryThing member LovingLit
1900: technology was taking off. People thought they had it made and could, if not tame nature, at least know it. The U.S. national weather service was looking for good press after their skill in predicting the weather had been openly mocked. So when a storm that went through Cuba and hit Florida didn't follow its expected course, no one would believe it was the same one, and one gathering speed and force. No one expected it to hit Galveston, Texas at all, let alone with such huge storm waves. And no one called it a hurricane, as labelling it as such was the top man's privilege and as it turns out, he knew squat.

The Isaac of the story, Isaac Cline, was a top weather forecaster. His life in weather is recreated here with warmth and in specific detail. His house, his children, his daily routines, his life. The sights and smells of a town destined for greatness. Of course the town is doomed, and its demise is spelled out very clearly as it happens during the course of the storm, in particular the waves that pummel the low-lying island town. It makes for stressful, but so compelling reading. Apart from the death and destruction which I'm sure must be the drawcard for some, the value and depth of the historical information is just wonderful. And the beautiful and evocative observations peppered throughout cap it off as a very memorable read.
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LibraryThing member TerriBooks
I read this book almost exactly one year after Hurricane Sandy, and was struck by the similarities -- not of the storms, but of our human hubris in facing them. We can look back on the technology of a century ago and discount it as primitive, and wonder why they people didn't pay more attention to the weather and leave. Bu what will our children a hundred years from now think about our dependence on what will seem to them primitive technology. It's a great way to get a sense of history. I would have like to see more personal biographical information about Isaac and his family, but I suppose that there's not really a lot available on an "average" guy, especially one who lost everything he would have been saving in his middle age. Fascinating book, quick read, and very worthwhile.… (more)
LibraryThing member melydia
In 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes in American history leveled the city of Galveston, Texas. This story is as much about the weather as it is about the troubled beginnings of the National Weather Bureau and turn-of-the-century American culture in general. The tale is intricately woven and exquisitely detailed, blunt and unflinchingly tragic but never gratuitous. It's fascinating and maddening and hard to put down. I wish my edition had photographs in it, especially since the text makes so many references to them, but to be honest I was able to picture most of it in my mind without any trouble. This was written before Katrina; I wonder how it would have been different after, with that so fresh in the mind for comparison. Anyone with an interest in severe weather or the time period would get quite a lot out of this one. Lucky for me, I happen to have an interest in both.… (more)
LibraryThing member TheJeanette
I really liked The Devil in the White City, but this one is just tooooo boring to keep going. I couldn't even get 1/3 of the way through it. It would be interesting if he could stay focused on the events in Galveston, but he's all over the place with boring bureaucratic history and stuff from hundreds of years ago. A real snooze inducer.… (more)
LibraryThing member MerryMary
Interesting and really well done. A comprehensive history of the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 - a deadly storm of record-breaking proportions. The story of the storm is seen through the lens of the meteorologist Isaac Cline and the consequences of his actions, mistakes, and conclusions.

The author's research has been exhaustive and meticulously noted from mostly primary sources. i was especially impressed with his digging in the records of the National Weather Bureau. Many of these delicate documents had not seen the light of day for 100 years. The bureaucratic detail gives another dimension to the heart-breakingly human story. Dropped one star for no photos. (I just like photos in nonfiction.) Recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member iubookgirl
Isaac's Storm, published in 1999, is the story of the most horrible hurricane in American history. While reading, I wondered if Hurricane Katrina had outstripped the Galveston hurricane described by Larson. It did not. The Galveston hurricane claimed at least 6,000 lives and the entire town. Hurricane Katrina, however, claimed less than 2,000 lives according to most estimates. While Katrina is the most tragic natural disaster of our age, our forebears experienced even worse. The Isaac of the title is Isaac Cline, the U.S. Weather Bureau's chief observer in Galveston. Larson weaves meteorological details of the storm with the story of Isaac and other Galveston residents as well as the bureaucratic failures that left the city vulnerable. The story is touching and, at times, horrifying. Larson clearly conveys the fear residents felt during the storm and the way it changed the lives of survivors forever. I cannot imagine living through such an ordeal. This is a wonderful precursor of Larson's later work, The Devil in the White City. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed that book.… (more)
LibraryThing member chezfugu
I read this during a 40-hour power outage following the recent epic snow storm in the Washington, DC metro area. I enjoyed it very much, but I don't attribute this to shchadenfreude as I sat in my cold, dark house. Rather, it put my little power outage in proper perspective. It's a really solid work of narrative fiction, which is no small feat to pull off.… (more)
LibraryThing member picardyrose
There wasn't really enough story to make a book.
LibraryThing member ACQwoods
Following the trail of the Johnstown Flood, the next book on my list was Isaac's Storm. Again, it is nonfiction but Larson tells the story so well that it flows like a novel. His descriptions of the storm are absolutely favorite is "he heard the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze." The storm is actually a character in the story. Not to worry for those rational minded readers; the book is packed with facts and data. I was struck by the parallel of the attitudes of Americans in this time to those of the British who built the Titanic (I highly recommend Walter Lord's A Night to Remember if you're interested in learning more about that). Isaac's Storm is an insightful look not only at one of the worst natural disasters in American history, but at the people and attitudes that shaped the time.… (more)
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
This story is a painstakingly-researched chronicle of the hurricane which devastated the up-and-coming glorious city Galveston, Texas, in 1900. It is presented as the story of Isaac Cline, a meteorologist who underestimates the power of one particular storm with tragic results. Beginning somewhat dryly with the history of meteorology in the United States, the narrative proceeds to tell the stories of individual families and how they are affected as the storm unexpectedly arrives at their beach and ocean waters begin to swallow their beloved city. The pace of the account then picks up momentum and it’s a race to see who will survive the momentous onslaught of wind, rain, and sea water. Although the story of Isaac Cline evokes sympathy, as an individual he does not come across as a particularly appealing person. He works more or less as an adversary to his brother Joseph, also a meteorologist, both vying for top positions. The Weather Bureau of that time also seems less then helpful. Those in charge would try to outmaneuver fellow meteorologists in order for each man to claim his own fame. As the author indicates from his story, many forces were at work to prevent the population of Galveston from knowing the true extent of the danger that was soon to engulf them. It reminds us that, at least in our own time, we are able to understand more about the forces of weather and sometimes have a better chance to avoid a tragic outcome of a hurricane.… (more)
LibraryThing member Helcura
Not as compelling as I'd hoped, but still a good book for those interested in the topic.
LibraryThing member Ladydncing
Great Book, yet terrifying on one of U.S. deadliest hurricane of the U.S.! Galvaston, Texas in September of 1900! The book was well researched and documented by Larson. Ditto, wished it had some pictures!


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