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 HistoryNational BestsellerSeptember Began Innocently In The Seaside Town Of Galveston, Texas Even Isaac Cline, Resident Meteorologist For The US 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 TragedyUsing 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 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 Erik Larson has the mind of a dedicated historian and the heart of a yarn spinning storyteller ISSAC S STORM was everything I had hoped it would be, both scrupulously detailed and as enthralling as any Hollywood disaster blockbuster It should come as no surprise really, as Larson has demonstrated himself as one of America s most unique and readable historians Still, I can t help but to feel awed whenever I read a book about a 100 year old storm that keeps me so on the edge of my seat Larson holds a magnifying glass over the heads of many of Galveston s real life inhabitants, of both those who perished and those who survived, to create a real sense of tension in his book While we become familiar with these people, the looming doom of the hurricane is never far off and when it finally hits, our nails are but nubs Also brilliant is Larson s highly illuminating reportage of the times themselves, the hubris we, particularly as Americans, suffered from at the start of the 20th century especially when it seemed so obvious that we knew so little of storms in reality and still have so many questions about An incredible book and a must read. It s been 15 years since I read this chilling account of the event that annihilated than 6,000 American souls in one fell swoop, but it still haunts me As Galveston and Corpus Christie brace themselves for Hurricane Harvey, this fantastic book is fresh on my mind.Today, satellite imagery and long term storm forecasts are standard fare We ve all had televisions since our parents or even grandparents were kids Before that, radios kept people in the know This outstanding author waltzes us back 100 years to a time when gas lights reigned We imagine hurricanes exploding onto coastal communities like massive days long tsunamis with mountainous, unending surges over 25 feet high Unprepared families were scrubbed away like leaf litter in a gutter while others in stronger structures could only gape in horror.Larsen explains in detail that there actually were meteorologists back in the day, but the basic and scant information they received left them deciding on their own whether to raise the flag for panic or to appease public concerns Trains washed away with passengers still aboard, and the bloated dead were left unburied for weeks, months, stuck in the shambles of splintered buildings and shattered woodlands.This is the first Larsen book I ever read, and because of the quality of his research and the beauty in his writing, Ive purchased everything he has penned since Don t miss out on this one When Hurricane Irene made landfall last month, I ll admit to feeling a tiny bit of storm envy Ensconced in landlocked Nebraska, I could only watch on CNN and MSNBC as the winds slashed and the rain pelted and the seas rose Friends on the east coast littered my Facebook feed with updates about closures, storm preparations, and hurricane parties It was the last of these that really made me jealous I love situational drinking, and a hurricane drunk sounded like a great way to wile away the windswept hours To be sure, I understand the actual dangers of hurricanes I don t need to be told how deadly they can be seriously, don t tell me, I remember Hurricane Katrina However, as a mid westerner in Tornado Alley, my envy goes beyond the opportunity to skip work and drink Boone s Farm In Nebraska, our natural disasters come with only minutes of warning they drop from the sky and spend a few lethal seconds on earth, before disappearing into the nothing from which they came As we know from Joplin, tornadoes are a terror In contrast, a big, slow moving hurricane, which we can follow from birth as well as any human child, seems almost benign Thanks to technology, there are updates every day of hurricane season, telling us about a tropical depression that might turn into a tropical storm of tropical storms that just got named and of named tropical storms that evolved into hurricanes These monsters are deadly, but they signal their arrival well in advance, giving people plenty of chance to flee Technology helps make us safe from hurricanes Technology also lulls us into a false sense of security Knowing every detail about the composition of oncoming storms or thinking the same , leads people to make critical judgments about whether they can ride things out This is not always for the good A little bit of knowledge, in untrained hands, can be deadly That, at least, is the point I took away from Erik Larson s Isaac s Storm, about the Galveston Hurricane of September 8, 1900 The storm, the deadliest in American history, killed upwards of 6,000 people It destroyed a city on the make, and hastened a shift in Texas municipal power from Galveston to Houston a shift helped, of course, by oil It was an event that, according to scientists such as meteorologist Isaac Cline, could never happen to Galveston Though built almost at sea level, the received wisdom at the turn of the century was that Galveston was safe Meteorologists from the fledgling U.S Weather Bureau calculated projected storm paths and concluded that hurricanes could not strike Galveston Further, there was a belief that the gradient of the beach would undercut the power of approaching waves Accordingly, no seawall was built Isaac s Storm tells the story of Isaac Cline, the man at the center of this folly, and of the horrible consequences that entailed when people got too comfortable in their certainty In 1900, Cline was part of the new breed at the Weather Bureau, a nascent, criticized governmental agency that had been wracked by scandal and corruption He was an ambitious, well educated man he graduated medical school in his spare time , and was sent to Galveston to clean up the local Bureau office Cline did this During his time there, he also came to believe that Galveston was impervious to hurricanes The Bureau as a whole had a hurricane problem due to bad press from faulty forecasts, meteorologists were warned to be skeptical about issuing hurricane warnings As a result, Galveston was hammered by a storm that had passed unknown to Bureau men in Cuba The subtitle of Larson s book is A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History Generally, I m wary of books with the phrase a Time in the title Simply put, that s often editorial code for this book contains plenty of filler Now, I m not philosophically opposed to filler as with everything in line, it depends on quality However, I ve found that filler typically runs the gamut sometimes it s homemade stuffing sometimes it s Stove Top and sometimes it s sawdust In Isaac s Storm, there wouldn t be a book without the filler There s not enough information on Isaac s life for a full scale biography, and a storm by itself is not ample enough a subject for an entire book Here, the filler is the best stuff I didn t care much for Isaac s part of the story The events of his life are sketchy many of his papers were destroyed in the hurricane and Larson has to rely heavily on Isaac s memoir, which self servingly makes him the hero of his own story On the other hand, the contextual aspects of the story the 1900s in general, and Galveston in particular are fascinating The 1900s was a new era of hope, coming after the Gilded Age and the Panic of 1893 It was a time of industrialization and progress There was electricity and automobiles within three years the Wright Brothers would take off on a plane at Kitty Hawk Less than a decade after Galveston, the keel for Titanic would be laid Man truly believed he had conquered his environment All this would end tragically in 1914, when Western Civilization collectively decided to commit suicide Yet it s fascinating to reenter that time, without the awful foreknowledge of how it s going to end It s also a bit refreshing to revisit a period of history marked by rationality and scientific belief Compared to 1900, we ve regressed in many ways Today, science is a competing theory, and local school boards get to decide whether our species evolved, or were created by an old guy with a flowing robe and a long white beard The attitude that marked the age, of course, also led to its great disasters Galveston, much like Titanic, was guided to its fate by hubris When it came to Galveston and its susceptibility to storms, many experts broke the first rule of punditry always bet on disaster If you re right, everyone will call you a seer if you re wrong, no one will care, because you re busy predicting another disaster Larson writes in a crisp, straightforward, journalistic style It is an approach that does not lend itself to deeper insights into humanity, and the most well developed character in Isaac s Storm is the hurricane Still, it is a style that holds your attention You can read this straight through without your mind wandering in the slightest The highest praise I can give is that the sections on the history of meteorology and the composition of hurricanes were among the best in the book Larson is able to make prosaic experiments and scientific concepts understandable Rather than falling asleep at the first mention of physics, I actually felt I learned something Larson also does a good job building tension Throughout the book, he intercuts scenes from Isaac s life to update you on the progress of the storm Each time he checks back in, the storm has gotten closer and stronger, brushing past land masses and tossing about the ships at sea After such a deliberate, finely tuned buildup, the climax simply sputters Quite frankly, the hurricane s landfall is the least interesting part of the book Larson does his best to make it visceral, with adjective filled sentences The problem is that I didn t care about any of the people mentioned They were just names, abstracted from humanity My head knew they were people once, but my heart did not As these names were swept away, one by one, I just couldn t care I m not blaming Larson for this He makes an attempt to humanize at least one family in Galveston The problem, I suspect, is that there isn t much of a historical record for him to comb The consequence, though, is a description of a storm that quickly becomes numbing and worse, mundane It s a list of people I didn t know, getting pulled away by the sea This is not to say that there aren t things that stick in your brain For instance, there was the horrifying fate of 90 some children at the orphanage The nuns had tied them together, so that no one would get separated, and that s how their bodies were found, a string of small corpses And of course there are the usual stories of miraculous survivals, families reunited, and lucky pets The book ends with a short, closing chapter, that follows Isaac who lost his wife in the storm through the rest of his career Perhaps knowing that he d failed the greatest task of his life the one for which he d trained many years , Isaac spent a great deal of time on self serving writings in which he attempted to cast himself as a hero, roaming the beach and warning 6,000 people to leave either the 6,000 people stayed and died, or they all had horrible memories, since there is no documented evidence that Isaac played the role of a maritime Paul Revere Isaac s last posting with the Weather Bureau was in New Orleans, which at the time still had its illusions He was dead long before Katrina came roaring out of the Gulf In this last section, Larson also notes that, despite technological advances, the unpredictability and fury of hurricanes mean they are still deadly Since this book was written in 1999, there is a tendency to divine some sort of prophecy in Larson s warning I don t see it that way Every book about a disaster is going to warn that greater disaster is looming All of life tends toward doom, and no one ever missed a house payment by predicting that hell will eventually break loose I suppose the lasting image I ll take from Isaac s Storm isn t the ferocity of the hurricane, but the hubristic certainty of Galveston before the flood In my imagination, I can see it glittering on the beach, snug and smug and secure It is a sunny day and kids are playing and laundry is snapping on the lines and mothers are cooking dinner and pot bellied men in three piece suits and starchy collars stand in clusters on street corners congratulating each other on their foresight And just over the horizon is a hurricane I know I m supposed to look back at those times and shake my head at those silly humans who thought they understood nature and the universe so well But I didn t Instead, I felt a stirring of nostalgia for an era in which people dreamed big Today s world is ruled by cynics, those people who love to say we can t, and then set out to prove it With so much negativity, the heart almost craves the fast talking, twinkle eyed, forked tongue huckster, promising happiness, prosperity, and a sea that won t ever rise. SPOILER FREE This is a book focused on the science of weather If that subject does not intersts you, do not rad this book You must be interested in this science It is a book of non fiction don t expect a book that will relate a harrowing tale of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston in September 1900 You will get that too, but first you must build up to the storm and understand the politics dictating the actions of the Weather Bureau The scientific facts are mixed with engaging portrayals of the people in the city and with the fascinating characteristics of all hurricanes I did not find the scientific data dry, but if you are allergic to such I would warn you, this is not primarily a dramatic horror about a devastating hurricane You get scientific facts and politics too I have warned you There is another central theme to this book, and it is related to the title Isaac s Storm This book is very much about how Isaac correctly and incorrectly predicted, advised others and was altered by the outcome of the storm Where did he fail What should he have done differently Why did he make the choices he made I am speaking of events both before and after the storm He was under pressure For this reason it is essential to understand what was happening in the life of the Weather Bureau in order to understand why perhaps Isaac made the errors he did and reacted as he did This storm was very much Isaac s storm, he played a huge role in what happened His life was changed both personally and professionally by this storm Through page 84 In the comments below this review there has arisen the question of whether Isaac sees himself as a hero or if it is the author that depicts him as a hero I am paying attention to this question as I read the book Numerous times I have noted that it is Isaac himself who is so very self assured I believe the author thinks differently Look at this excerpt from page 79 about Isaac s view concerning a famous weather prophet, ProfessorAndrew Jackson DeVoe of Chattanooga, Tennessee It was the kind of prophecy Isaac Cline loathed He was a scientist He believed he understood weather in ways others did not He did not know there was such a thing as the jet stream., or that easterly waves marched from the coast of West Africa every summer, or that a massive flow within the Atlantic Ocean ferried heat around the globe Nor had he heard of a phenomenon called El Nino But for his time he knew everything Or thought he did.I find that last sentence very telling of the author s point of view In fact the entire chapter, entitled Galveston An Absurd Delusion, points out the errors evident in Isaac s statements concerning the safety of Galveston The author bases his views on written documents It is quite clear that the author does not paint Isaac as a hero I have just begun The excitement builds right from the start I like the scientific acuracy mixed with the people s oh so normal responses So far adults and children look upMen on the ground saw blossoms of cotton with flat gray bottoms that marked the altitude where condensation had begun Children saw camels, rabbits, and canon fireSomething powerful and ultimately deadly occurred wutrhin these clousd As the water rose and cooled and condensed, it also released heat In the sky over Africa 1900, trillions upon trillions of water molecules began breathing tiny fires This heat propelled the air even higher into the atmosphere until the flatened to form Cumulonimbuscapillatus incus Incusmeaning anvil , the name too of an anvil shaped bone in the human ear There were thunderheads Convection Higher up the strongest clouds penetrated the stratosphere Soon an army of great thunderheads was marching west along the horizon, watched closely by the captains of British ships sailing down the African coast with troops for the Boer War Seventy to eighty such waves drifted from West Africa into the Atlantic every summer, some dangerous, most not The captains knew them less as weather, as geography something to watch to fill the long hours at sea At dawn and dusk, the distant clouds warmed the sky with color Rain smudged from their bottoms in fallstreaks Frozen virga drifted from their glaciated tops When the light was just right or a squall was near, the clouds formed an escarpment of black Frigate birds sidelit by the sun drifted in the foreground and flecked the sky with diamondpages 22 23 We, the readers, have been given the background so we understand what is hidden in the clouds up above I like the writing because science, people s reactions, danger a nd beauty are all there in two successive paragraphs The whole book so far is written in this maner I find it very intersting to read this book NOW Both then and now the temperatures in the USA have been exceedingly high day after day after day It is hard to ignore this similarity But I am no weatherman. Erik Larson delivers every time He has the rare ability to take historical events and weave together yarns that in the end feel like you re reading a page turning novel In Isaac s Storm Larson takes us to a thriving seaside city in Texas circa 1900, to a time when people felt they could control nature He paints the story of how the infamous hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, on September 8th of that year devastated not just a whole community but also destroyed people s faith in man s ability to accurately predict the weather Isacc s Storm blind sided everyone and what we learn is that there were in fact many dynamics at play that led to its terrible surprise political, competitive, as well as scientific that ultimately failed the people of Galveston There were amongst other things, no calls to evacuate In fact, no one even knew that the oncoming storm was a hurricane, and in the end the death toll was over 8,000 still to this day the highest death toll resultant of any of our country s natural disasters Not only does Larson take us back to this time and place and through the storm where we literally feel like we re in the eye of the hurricane with its victims and survivors, but also in the end, in hindsight, it s a lesson in how storms, real and figurative, can blow through and sideswipe the most cautious and unassuming of any of us.It s a reminder of how the unexpected is always upon us P.s The amount of detail and research and accuracy of depiction to this story in and of itself make it worth the read Highly recommended Here s a tragedy that could not have been completely avoided, but due to man s folly became much worse than it should have been The U.S Weather Service in September of 1900 ignored most reports of a severe hurricane brewing in the Caribbean Drawing on a great deal of denial and no small amount of racism, the Americans condemned Cuban forecasts which were also understated, but not nearly so heinously as emotional, avoiding almost as a matter of faith poetic terms like eye of the storm or even Hurricane The storm hit Galveston, Texas, dead on, wiping out a third of the structures of the city and an estimated 8,000 residents While land based telegraphy was advanced as to transmission of data, it bears remembering that radio telegraphy still lay in the near future As much as possible of the narrative is told through the eyes of Isaac Cline, chief of the Galveston weather bureau.As always, Erik Larson writes beautifully, at times brilliantly, and bases his non fiction on vast and impeccable sources This is a wonderful book to read though Texans who lived through the similar Harvey in 2017 may want to wait a while before picking up ISAAC S STORM I do wish that visuals in this book had included than a very basic map of the Gulf of Mexico and adjoining landmass, and a map of Galveston I always find it frustrating when Larson describes the looks of people and buildings with such details and eloquence, yet no photos or drawings wind up in the book Take with superior technology means nothing without superior methodology and information gathering. What a great story This book just raced along full of facts and interesting detail about a man, a time, and the deadliest hurricane in history I must admit that when this book was first released in Australia I wasn t overly interested It didn t sound like something that would interest me in the slightest How wrong can you be, after picking the book up for the third or fourth time and actually taking the time to see what the story was about I had to read it The author, Erik Larson, presents a gripping and terrible account of the events leading up to the destruction on Galveston on the 8th of September 1900 by one of the deadliest hurricanes in America s history Along the way the Larson provides details of man s efforts to predict and control the weather and the often disastrous results when we got it wrong The personal accounts offered in this book are often very touching and the human drama really gets you involved in the story The narrative moves along like an action paced novel and you find yourself up in the early hours of the morning glued to the pages I really didn t want this story to finish, it was a great account and the only fault I could find was a lack of photographs On a number of occasions Larson refers to old black and white photographs that he had seen during his research for this book, it would have been nice to share these with his audience Overall this is a great book and well worth the time to read. Ever want to read a nonfiction tragedy about a presumptive meteorologist Exactly Still, Isaac s Storm is an engaging cautionary tale, and one with a bit of relevance for America today In fact the book is almost foreshadowing in that it was published just a couple of years before Hurricane Katrina The writing in this book is not nearly as tuned as it is in The Devil in the White City, but Larson is still better at this than nine of ten nonfiction writers Side note when Katrina hit, several talking heads on CNN, FOX and MSNBC repeated the myth that there had never been a deadlier hurricane in the US The next day, they apologized for a factual mistake, and started talking about Galveston, Texas and the events of this book It s a good reminder that man really does repeat the same mistakes when he forgets having ever made them to begin with.NC Popular history with just enough science thrown in to explain what happened without causing the reader to go cross eyed Fast moving and engrossing in the tradition of the best suspense disaster fiction only the 1900 Galveston Hurricane was real Somewhere between 6,000 8,0000 people lost their lives and the city of Galveston, Texas sustained a body blow that derailed it s ambitions of becoming one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the United States It s now a moderate sized city that relies on tourism and the insurance industry historical irony I believe for it s economic well being It was long ago passed up by it s business rival Houston The 1900 hurricane played a large part in that and Issac s Storm details what happened on September 8 1900 The book is gripping Sucks you in and keeps you reading I was pleasantly surprised that it was so engrossing often I find this type of pop history to be a bit lacking and kept turning the pages I only put it down when I had to Not a long read it feels like a very well done in depth article for a monthly periodical Now for a couple weak points The book cried out for photos Thankfully the Internet provides not only photos but even a couple short movies of the clean up that were made by Edison s people In addition there are individuals in the book that show up once or twice and then never returned to In particular I kept waiting to come back to Rabbi Cohen and his family, but we never see them again after pages 155 158 paperback edition Once again ,thanks to the Internet, and several Texas based historical societies, I was able to learn what happened to the Cohen family they all survived and prospered as well as many others mentioned in passing The book is short and thousands were effected and I understand that not everyone can be covered in depth The main focus in on Isaac Cline and his family, but to have the reader follow the Cohen family for three pages and then to never mention them again is something of a mistake In my humble opinion.Well regardless of those quibbles Issac s Storm is very well written Give it a try I live in Idaho so hurricanes aren t really a problem, but it would make a nice read if you re at the beach during a garden variety tropical storm Just enough to make you stop and listen when a particularly powerful gust of wind rocks the walls.

Erik Larson s latest work of narrative nonfiction is DEAD WAKE THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA, which became an immediate New York Times bestseller His saga of the Chicago World s Fair of 1893, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won an Edgar Award for fact crime writing, and lingered on various NYT best seller lists for the better part of a decade Hu

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  • Paperback
  • 336 pages
  • Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
  • Erik Larson
  • English
  • 27 November 2019
  • 9780375708275

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