Isaac s Storm: The Drowning of Galveston

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9780007292110: Isaac s Storm: The Drowning of Galveston

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.

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Review:

On September 8, 1900, a massive hurricane slammed into Galveston, Texas. A tidal surge of some four feet in as many seconds inundated the city, while the wind destroyed thousands of buildings. By the time the water and winds subsided, entire streets had disappeared and as many as 10,000 were dead--making this the worst natural disaster in America's history.

In Isaac's Storm, Erik Larson blends science and history to tell the story of Galveston, its people, and the hurricane that devastated them. Drawing on hundreds of personal reminiscences of the storm, Larson follows individuals through the fateful day and the storm's aftermath. There's Louisa Rollfing, who begged her husband, August, not to go into town the morning of the storm; the Ursuline Sisters at St. Mary's orphanage who tied their charges to lengths of clothesline to keep them together; Judson Palmer, who huddled in his bathroom with his family and neighbors, hoping to ride out the storm. At the center of it all is Isaac Cline, employee of the nascent Weather Bureau, and his younger brother--and rival weatherman--Joseph. Larson does an excellent job of piecing together Isaac's life and reveals that Isaac was not the quick-thinking hero he claimed to be after the storm ended. The storm itself, however, is the book's true protagonist--and Larson describes its nuances in horrific detail.

At times the prose is a bit too purple, but Larson is engaging and keeps the book's tempo rising in pace with the wind and waves. Overall, Isaac's Storm recaptures at a time when, standing in the first year of the century, Americans felt like they ruled the world--and that even the weather was no real threat to their supremacy. Nature proved them wrong. --Sunny Delaney

From Kirkus Reviews:

There is bad weather, and there are 100-year storms. Then there are meteorological events. In September 1900, one of the latter visited Galveston, Tex., and ate the city alive. Larson tells the story with (at times overnourished) brio. The Isaac in Larson's (Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of Americas Gun Crisis, 1994) title is Isaac Cline: head meteorologist of the Galveston station of the US Weather Bureau in 1900, a man who thought he had the drop on weather systems because he had data, and from data he could predict the meteorological future. But, as Larson shows, from Philo of Byzantium in 300 b.c. to the talking weatherheads of today, forecasting the weather has always been a ``black and dangerous art.'' When Cline blithely stated that Galveston's vulnerability to extreme weather was ``an absurd delusion,'' he was inviting trouble, and it came calling. A series of administrative snafus and ignored warnings from Cuba found the city unprepared for the monster rogue hurricane. The air turned wild and gray, a storm surge swept over the city, the wind became ``a thousands little devils, shrieking and whistling,'' said a survivor. It is now thought to have topped 150 mph. ``Slate fractured skulls and removed limbs. Venomous snakes spiraled upward into trees occupied by people. A rocket of timber killed a horse in mid-gallop.'' Its estimated that 8,000 people died, and Cline was not decorated for his brilliant forecasting by a grateful city government. Larson paints a withering portrait of the early Weather Bureau and offers a wild and woolly reconstruction of the storm, full of gripping anecdotal accounts told with flair, even if he overplays the portents, sapping their menace and turning them into a melodrama most often accompanied by trembling piano keys. Cline saw himself as ``a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in his rheumatoid knee.'' He should have listened to his bones. Larson captures his ignominy, and the storm in its fury. (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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