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.
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.
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.
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.
I can't say this was an enjoyable read, but it certainly was a good one.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.