Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

ISBN: 0375708278
ISBN 13: 9780375708275
By: Erik Larson

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About this book

National BestsellerSeptember 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 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 devestating 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. 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.

Reader's Thoughts

Ms.pegasus

1900 was a time when passenger pigeons still darkened the sky, and bathing suits were made of mohair. The Spanish-American War had been waged the previous year. Galveston was a booming seaport riding high on a surge of (to the modern eye) precarious optimism. With these, and many more details, Larson immerses the reader in a zeitgeist ripe for natural catastrophe. There was a burgeoning faith in technology. The U.S. Weather Service, then part of the War Department, was like an adolescent, its expansive confidence masking both inexperience and insecurities. Larson draws on elements of history, science, and human interest to tell the story of the devastating hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900 and killed between 6000 and 8000 people. His story is riveting.He builds suspense through journal like entries marking the storm's progress from it's birth in the Atlantic Ocean to its first sighting as a typical tropical squall on August 27 to warnings of an unusual incipient cyclone from the Belen Observatory in Cuba on September 1. Although tropical storm and hurricane warnings were of vital importance to Cuba, and, since 1870, a detailed communication network had been set up on the island, the head of the U.S. Weather service, Willis Moore and his representative in Cuba, William Stockman, were both dismissive of the Cubans. Part of this was prejudice; their correspondence depicted the Cubans as panic-prone natives. Part of their attitude was due to insecurity. Moore was obsessed with centralized control. He did not want the Cubans issuing independent weather bulletins. He had a paranoid fear that the Cubans would steal U.S. Weather Service data and claim independent expertise. The U.S. Government owned all telegraph lines in Cuba. Moore was able to get the War Department to ban all cables about the weather from Cuba except for those issued by the U.S. Weather Service. As a result, the Belen Observatory's concerns went unheeded. And, of course, ego was a prominent factor.Forecasting relied largely on the discernment of patterns, not scientific hypothesis and testing. One misleading pattern was that tropical storms usually veered north northeast into the Atlantic. Exceptions were conveniently termed accidents of nature. Three days before the hurricane struck, the weather service was predicting that the storm would proceed up the Atlantic coast the next day. The Cubans at Belen had already anticipated that the path would instead lead to the Texas coast.A second misleading conception was that the long low coastal shelf of Galveston Island would mute the effects of tidal flooding. In 1876 Henry Blanford had studied the lethal storm surges in the Bay of Bengal and concluded that such a geographical configuration promoted the volume and height that defined these devastating tidal waves. Unfortunately, that theme was not reiterated until a month after the hurricane in the weather bureau's monthly publication. Bureaucracy was another contributing factor in the failure to anticipate the hurricane. Data was submitted to the central office in Washington D.C. Assessments were made centrally and bulletins issued each morning. Because of the top down communication flow, a Galveston weather service employee was advising as late as the morning of September 8 that the storm conditions were an “offspur” of the Florida storm reported earlier in the week.Larson's saga turns into a horror story as he focuses on individual families. Houses crumple, slate shingles fly through the air, families are divided and drowned. The horror continues into the aftermath as the first outsiders venture into the area to investigate the mysterious silencing of all communications coming out of Galveston. His documentation for these events are drawn from an extensive trove of archival material: Letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, cables, and newspaper accounts. Larson is at his most lyrical when he delves into the elemental nature of the weather. “It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth's soul....Winds converged. A big, hot easterly raced around a heat-induced low in the Sahara, where temperatures averaged 113 degrees Fahrenheit, heat scalded the air, and winds filled the sky with dust. This easterly blew toward the moist and far cooler bulge of West Africa. High over the lush lands north of the Gulf of Guinea, over Ouagadougou, Zungeru, and Yamoussoukro, this thermal stream encountered moist monsoon air blowing in from the sea from the southwest. The monsoon crossed the point where zero latitude and zero longitude meet, and entered the continent over Nigeria Where these winds collided, they produced a zone of instability. The air began to undulate.” (p.19-20) The dance of moisture and wind is mesmerizing. You will never think about the weather in the same way again!It is a sobering thought that even today, with all of our measurements and satellite tracking, there is much to be learned about hurricanes. Larson even invokes chaos theory as a reminder that prediction may not even be an attainable goal.

Bill Sleeman

Issac’s Storm by Erik Larson is an amazingly interesting and engaging read. He weaves the tales of some many events and individuals into one stunning story. It has been my “train book” for the past several days and has been gripping enough that I have still been in my seat and reading when I arrived in Washington – without realizing that we had done so. An excellent bit of history and science. I do wish that he had added more about the storm’s path through the upper Midwest an unusual occurrence that. It also made me think about Katrina and Superstorm Sandy and how little we can be prepared for the damage of a super storm or what the most recent report on global warming called a “hyberhurricane.” [http://www.globalchange.gov/ncadac] Scary!

Rachel

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!

Jan C

Fascinating story of the storm that changed the weather bureau. Before the storm it was a tiny little bureau that didn't pay any attention to what other places said about the storm. When the Cubans reported on it. They said - oh, they're only Cubans, what do they know (or words to that effect).Well, this was a bad storm. Galveston was practically wiped off the face of the earth. And the Weather Bureau became more serious about their job.Isaac was the local head weather guy in Galveston. Actually, he had been banished to Galveston by the folks in D.C. for taking his job too seriously. But the part that takes place during the storm is really most vivid. The story of people trying to get home in 6 ft of turgid water is not something to be forgotten. And Galveston (and other places) took their sea wall much more seriously after that.

Beth

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson is a book that chronicles the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. It can be divided into three main sections: a background of the United States Weather Bureau, the occurrence of the storm, and the recovery of the town. While parts of this book seem to drag on, in the end it is a good book. Many people and accounts were taken into consideration when this book was written. While this helps to support the main point, I often found myself confused as to who the author was referring to. However, the fact that he includes so many tragic accounts helps in proving how devastating this storm truly was. In a way, Larson’s constant jumping from person to person could also signify the confusion the residents of Galveston were going through throughout the storm. While the personal stories covering the time of the storm were very interesting, I feel that Larson spent too much time before its occurrence talking about how the Bureau operated. In some aspects, it helped to know that it always told their workers to undercompensate, helping lead to the complete surprise of the hurricane. Despite this, the readers probably do not need to know how a barometer works and all the ins and outs of weather forecasting. I feel that this time would’ve been better devoted to the time and recovery after the storm which, in the book, seemed to be lacking. Larson mostly stuck to telling about the time immediately after the storm. He didn’t mention much about the long terms effects it had on the Weather Bureau, who could’ve helped lessen the effects of this storm had they not withheld and blocked information. Isaac’s Storm tended to focus too much on how the Weather Bureau worked and not enough on the aftereffects of the hurricane. It also went back and forth between many people, leading to confusion. Despite these things, the accounts were interesting and well written, and the amount of evidence Larson was able to accumulate really helps to show how awful this disturbance was. After consideration of all this, the good things about this book heavily outweigh the bad, with a bit more organization it would’ve easily gotten a five star rating.

Karen

I really wanted to give this more stars but even 3.5 seemed like more of a stretch than I feel comfortable with.I'm not a morbid person. I wasn't looking for gory details. But I wanted a human story and all the meteorology stuff really bogged it down. I live on the Texas gulf coast, 90 minutes from Galveston. Was on "the dirty side" of Hurricane Ike that hit Galveston. The last thing I care about is knowing all the meteorological minutia when a hurricane is headed my way. But tell me how people feel, what they plan to do and what roles there are to play, in our mutual humanity, and I'm all yours.In short, I think I wanted drama. What I got was a short course in the arrogance of meteorology in 1900. 3 stars because it wasn't a total loss. The last half of the book is very engaging and hard to put down. You just have to slog through the first half without giving up!

Kristen

I became a fan of Erik Larson after reading Devil In The White City. As a bit of a history buff, I love the way he makes you feel as though you are really in whatever time period he is writing about. This book was especially interesting to me because I have been to Galveston and visited the hurricane museum. Since Erik Larson loves to give a lot of background details I had a hard time getting into the book (a problem I also had with Devil in the White City). But once the hurricane started to get close I got very excited and couldn't put it down. But I was surprised that when the hurricane actually hit I found it to be not so much exciting as it was extremely sad. Larson did such a good job of painting the picture of this hurricane that I was terrified and heartbroken for these poor citizens of Galveston. Of course Devil In The White City was sad as well (being that it centered around a murderer) but every other chapter was filled with the hope and excitement of the fair and the rise of Chicago. Isaac's Storm focused on the failure of the Weather Bureau, the deaths of 6,000 people, and a city that was completely destroyed. A fascinating historical account and definitely a worthwhile read.

Chrissie

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 up: Men 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 fire...Something 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. Incus meaning "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, more 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 diamond. (pages 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.

Book Concierge

What an extraordinary read - a page-turner about weather! But then, the hurricane that destroyed Galveston was the most deadly disaster to ever strike the United States (and still is). Larson brings the drama to life while conveying the calm of ignorance and the unbelievable loss afterwards. Very well researched. The personal stories really brought it to life. There is some detailed scientific data here, but the basic plot is gripping. I was lucky to hear Larson speak when he was on the book tour. He talked specifically about the scene when the water surges from ankle-deep to shoulder-deep in a moment, and he(Larson) thought - "My children are all under 4 feet tall; they would have drowned." Larsen personalized the story by giving this thought (and others) to Isaac himself. (I couldn't help but think of this book in 2008 with Hurricane Ike bearing down on Galveston, yet again.)

Lori L (She Treads Softly)

Both my adult son and I would put Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm on our lists of top nonfiction books that everyone should read. We often refer to it in conversations. Not only is it about the devastating hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900, but all of the mistakes made that prevented any prediction of a hurricane. It's a brief history of weather forecasting. It's about how hubris and ambition can sometimes prevent accurate gathering of data. It's about how the combination of personalities in the right place allowed the existence of an hurricane to be basically ignored until it made landfall and wiped out an entire city. It's about the deception and misinformation some people perpetrated in order to cover up their errors in the aftermath. It is a nonfiction book with a story so compelling that it reads like fiction. It's a book any weather geek or disaster freak will love.Now that I've established that I love this book, let me also add that Erik Larson is a good writer. Often in nonfiction books a case can be made that there are "boring" parts, sections of the book that move too slowly, especially when compared to a fiction book. It's a difficult balance to pass along accurate information, historically or technically, while keeping the book itself satisfying and interesting. In Isaac's Storm Erik Larsen was pitch-perfect. Isaac's Storm is Very Highly Recommended - one of the best. http://shetreadssoftly.blogspot.com/

Nathan

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

Kimberly

The subject matter of this book - namely the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900 and is one of the greatest natural disasters of all times - was intriguing to me but I chose this book almost entirely because of its author, Erik Larson. After reading "The Devil in the White City" a few years ago, I resolved to read all of Larson's novels. I figured this would not be a tough task, given that he's written 6 novels to date. 2 down, 4 to go and I do intend to read the other 4 and am most enthused by "The Garden of Beasts" about Hitler's Germany.It was interesting to see the evolution in Larson's writing reading this book, which was published in 1999 - four years before the 2003 publication of "Devil in the White City." There are so many elements of Larson's writing that I love from "Devil" present in this book. First, his intense focus on a historical event - here the Galveston hurricane, in "Devil" it's the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Also present in both books is the beautiful way in which Larson writes historical non-fiction like fiction. This book dragged a bit for me at the beginning but once I reached Part III (around page 140 of my version) where the hurricane is upon the city, it definitely picked up and Larson's account of how the Galveston residents rode out the storm and survived or didn't was fairly affecting. Larson's ability to entertain while teaching is definitely a gift. Third, Larson's decision to view this event primarily from the vantage point of one or two significant real-life historical figures is definitely a Larson hallmark of the two books I have read. Here, we primarily follow the story of meteorologist Isaac Cline, a young, rising star in the Weather Bureau at the turn of the century who comes across as something of a boy scout (obey they master above all). I think one of the reasons this book did not work for me nearly as well as "Devil" is because I found Cline only somewhat interesting as a narrator and found him far less fleshed out as a person than the murderer, H. H. Holmes in "Devil." While Holmes was complex and nuanced, Cline comes across as almost one-dimensional.All that being said, I am glad to have read "Isaac's Storm" and was very entertained by the rivalry between the U.S. and Cuban weather services in Havana and by the arrogance and enormity of the errors committed by the U.S. Weather Bureau. The book explains some of the science behind hurricanes (see especially, the 3 page chapter entitled "Spiderwebs and Ice" at pages 87-89) and was a quick, informative read.

Patrick Gibson

The Isaac in question is Isaac Cline, a Galveston meteorologist at the turn of the last century who lacked the tools and wherewithal to predict one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit the Americas since record keeping. The author picks a dozen, or so, compelling people to follow as the monster storm builds, approaches then devastates the island. His research is detailed and exact. The writing is concise. The description of the strike is comparable more to a thriller than historical fiction. (I suppose it is ‘history’ but I am guessing a lot of creative license has been taken.) Like most hurricanes hitting a major city, there are political scandals and bungling incompetence’s. The bottom line: they weren’t ready—and their arrogance that ‘it could never happen to them’ cost 10,000 lives. More horrific than the storm, is its aftermath with mounds of rubble and a staggering number of corpses. Again, the descriptions are graphic and gruesome. (I like disaster movies too!)

Michael

If I can refer to reading about the tragic situation of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane as “enjoyable” without seeming like an A-hole then I will. Larson – later author of the excellent book about the Columbian Exposition and the lunatic hotelier a few blocks away – can certainly reconstruct a story. In this case he utilizes memoirs and other documents of a select few survivors as well as Weather Bureau archives and the history of scientific inquiry into hurricanes to recreate the days surrounding this monstrous occurrence. His attention to detail (and educated speculation) renders the experience of inhabiting Galveston at that time – the exciting milieu of a burgeoning, cosmopolitan city abruptly transformed into a horrendous, putrefactive zone of disaster – quite powerfully. Secondary, but important themes include both the Industrial Age arrogance of man’s apparent dominance over nature, and the equally arrogant disregard by the fledgling US Weather Bureau of the forecasts of the more expert Cuban meteorologists (they were seemingly “backward islanders” who resorted to “hunches” and “psychoanalytical approaches” that, nonetheless typically proved more accurate than the “scientific” data produced by our US counterparts).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?

Rebecca Huston

At the turn of the twentieth century, one of the worst storms in recorded history bore down on Galveston, Texas, nearly wiping it off the face of the map. Weather forecasting was still a very inexact science, and the inhabitants hardly knew that it was coming, with just a few people in Cuba knowing what was going on. Except for one man, the Isaac of the title. How the storm was foretold and tracked, and how the people of Galveston survived is the main narrative of the book. I rather enjoyed it, as this is one of the geeky things that I am interested in, and the stories are heartbreaking to read. Very much recommended for anyone interested in Texan history, science or hurricanes. Four stars overall. For the longer review, please go here:http://www.epinions.com/review/Isaac_...

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