A few years ago, I read the late Texas writer Gary Cartwright’s book Galveston: A History of the Island”. Of course, much of the book described the great hurricane of 1900, still the deadliest natural disaster in America. Cartwright gave a great deal of detail about the event, but Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, makes you feel as if you were actually experiencing it!
Many have heard of “The Great Storm,” the 1900 hurricane that caught the port city of Galveston completely unprepared, resulting in the deadliest natural disaster in US history. Causes of the unpreparedness were a combination of poor communication, archaic weather forecasting technology, political influences, and myriad other shortcomings including basic ignorance.
Originally intended to aid shipping and commerce, as well as agriculture, the fledgling young Bureau was still trying to prove itself worthy as a government agency. At the close of the 19th century, the Commissioner of the US Patent Office was quoted as saying that “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” Obviously, the newly formed National Weather Bureau had a lot to learn about forecasting weather. Radar was still decades away and wasn’t used by weather agencies until the Second World War.
Isaac’s Storm centers around Dr. Isaac Cline, a National Weather agent stationed at Galveston about a decade before the disaster. Isaac’s younger brother, Joseph, where there existed a great deal of competitive rivalry, was also posted at the weather bureau in Galveston assisted by the influence of his older brother.
In the days and hours leading up to the September 8th disaster, Dr. Cline felt something stronger than what was being reported was brewing in the gulf. His innate sensitivities detected oddities in the waves, the winds, the characteristics of the tide, among other peculiarities. And yet, even he underestimated what was soon to befall the port city. At that time, Galveston was a prominent port city, in contention with the nearby Houston for gaining dominance as the primary port in the region. As a result of the storm, Houston would win out.
A number of ocean-going vessels in the gulf were caught in the tempest as it passed from Cuba to the northwest. The ship captains became increasingly aware that the severity of storm had been understated, but the strength of the storm brought down their ability to communicate to the outside world.
By the time the hurricane made landfall, the wind directions were changing dramatically, which was one of the primary methods used by weather people before the use of doppler radar and other technologies. Cline knew that the changing wind directions were consistent with winds of hurricanes in the northern hemisphere.
Many of the locals simply ignored the ravaging winds and flooding right up to the time it became undeniable that this was a hurricane of massive proportions! The streets turned into rushing rivers containing all sorts of debris and animals, and the winds were literally blowing away houses, sheds, and other structures. Only a few of the buildings seemed able to provide some semblance of safety, and even those were tested to the limits. By the time people realized the enormity of their situation, they attempted to flee to these strong buildings for cover. Most of them were turned away as the buildings were already too full to accommodate any more.
Though Isaac Cline and his three daughters barely survived the storm, his pregnant wife Cora (nee Ballew) did not. After nearly a month of searching through the rubble, her remains were finally found in the area of their home, identified only by her engagement ring. Joseph Cline also survived the storm, but died five days later.
Word of the disaster spread across the world like wildfire, prompting various types of aid to the devastated region. Galveston and the surrounding effected areas received financial help from all over the globe, including Johnstown, PA, which had been devastated by another major disaster eleven years before.
Ironically, one of the reasons the people of Galveston were caught off guard was a direct result of the Spanish-American War, which ended less then two years prior. The National Weather Bureau was filtering out weather reports from Cuba as tensions from the recent war with Spain and it’s colonies were still high. Though the Cuban weather services transmitted news of the hurricane passing over their island country, the US Weather Bureau assumed it would veer north, pass over Florida, and proceed northeast to the Atlantic coast, as they usually did. The Americans felt that the Cubans were backward “alarmists”, not to be taken seriously. Had the weathermen heeded the information coming out of Havana, Galveston would have been better able to prepare for the hurricane.
Having become a fan of Erik Larson over the last several years, Isaac’s Storm, shows that the author has an amazing talent for writing nonfiction, even in his earliest books. My analogy of his depiction of historical events would be to picture the story as a jar. This jar is filled to the brim with “jellybeans” of verified facts. The author then seems to completely fill the jar with the “water” of intuitively deduced content. After all, it doesn’t take too much to imagine the sounds, the sensations, nor the stench as the event unrolled. Eventually, the full jar results in the “based on fact” story. Larson’s methods work! His works have an uncanny ability to make the reader feel as if they were actually there.
As with all of Larson’s books, I thoroughly recommend reading Isaac’s Storm! It is defintely the most educationally informative, intriguing, and awe-inspiring “storm” recounts I’ve encountered.