A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
By Erik Larson
Crown. 323 pp. $25
Hurricanes are very much on our minds. It has been said, by people whose job it is to know, that these weeks will be particularly stormy. The threat gives special weight to Isaac's Storm, Erik Larson's history of the Galveston hurricane of Sept. 8, 1900. It destroyed virtually the entire city and killed at least 4,263 people, according to a contemporary newspaper account, though some estimates put the death toll closer to 10,000. Either figure would qualify it as the most lethal hurricane this country has ever known. So far.
The truth is, Isaac's Storm doesn't need the modern shadow of impending doom to deserve our attention. The author, a contributing editor of Time magazine, has produced a riveting, deeply researched narrative that is driven by a prose style of descriptive elegance and power. The result is authoritative history given the gloss of high journalism, and the sense of immediacy such a combination produces is at times breathtaking, particularly when Larson chronicles the hour-by-hour progress of the hurricane as its extraordinary storm surge (15 feet, by some estimates) and winds (which may have gusted to 200 miles an hour) systematically ripped "The New York of the Gulf" to flinders. Here is just one moment, from one family's experience: "The water rose high onto the second floor. Gusts of wind moving at speeds possibly as great as one hundred and fifty miles an hour -- possibly much higher -- penetrated deep into the house. Palmer held tight to his son and braced his back against the bathroom door. His wife, Mae, hugged his neck with all her strength.
"Beams fractured. Glass broke. Lumber ricocheted among the walls of the hallway outside the bath. The front half of the house tore loose. The Beckers stood in their bedroom holding each other close as the wind peeled the house away."
Good as it is as disaster narrative, Isaac's Storm also shines as a character study, as an anatomy of hurricanes, and as a lively expose of bureaucratic stupidity. The Isaac of the title is Isaac Cline, who had been sent to Galveston in 1891 to head up the Texas Section of
the U.S. Signal Corp's Weather Service, and much of the story is told through Cline's eyes. While the storm relentlessly approaches his city after passing over Cuba and the Florida Keys, the weatherman is revealed as a decent but unremarkable man who takes on tragic dimensions as he struggles to come to grips with his own inexperience (the Galveston storm was only his second hurricane), the lamentable state of meteorology in that era, and the timidity of his superiors in Washington, D.C. -- all of which combined to leave the city with no warning that it would soon experience the end of its world.
Almost nothing was known then of how hurricanes develop and move across the earth, Larson tells us in a brief but cogent history of storms and the meteorological arts, and much of what was passed off as science was mere speculation. Cline himself had written an article in 1891 declaring that "the coast of Texas is according to the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere exempt from West India hurricanes," and he did not realize that the steady rise in sea level and the plummeting of the barometer that he and his crew faithfully recorded throughout the hours of the 7th of September nine years later were the signs of something more than a standard Gulf storm coming Galveston's way. His ignorance was abetted by the Weather Service in Washington under the iron thumb of director Willis Moore, an ambitious bureaucrat who did not like to give out bad news. The service not only refused to identify the Caribbean storm for what it was but also stubbornly insisted that it had shifted north to the inland and was rapidly losing power -- while in fact it was actually racing across the Gulf toward the Texas shore, taking on the "explosive deepening," as meteorologists today call it, that made it a certain killer.
After leaving Galveston in a shambles, the storm went on to bring rain and hurricane-force winds as far north as Chicago before finally sputtering out. Cline, who lost his wife in the hurricane, ultimately became one of the foremost hurricane experts in the country. Moore was fired for using his office to further his political career. And Galveston? It reinvented itself, of course, this time on fill that raised portions of the city as much as 22 feet above their pre-storm levels. The city also constructed a 17-foot-high seawall. And there Galveston sits today. Waiting.
T.H. Watkins is Stegner Professor at Montana State University and the author of numerous books, including "The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression," forthcoming in October.