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.
- ISBN-13: 9780609602331
- ISBN-10: 0609602330
- Publisher: Crown Publishing Group (NY)
- Publish Date: August 1999
- Dimensions: 9.28 x 6.37 x 1.08 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
- Page Count: 336
It was Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900, and never had Buford T. Morris seen such a beautiful daybreak: "The sky seemed to be made of mother of pearl; gloriously pink, yet containing a fish-scale effect which reflected all the colors of the rainbow."
Within hours, however, this glorious first light in Galveston, Texas, would be transformed into disaster of unimaginable proportions-one that would devastate the seaside town and claim the lives of an estimated 8,000 people as a deadly hurricane blew in from the Gulf of Mexico.
It was, in a sense, Isaac Cline's storm-the man stationed in Galveston for the new U.S. Weather Bureau. Author Erik Larson, who researched survivors' accounts, tells of the hurricane in his new book, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. Larson, author of two previous books, relates the monumental tragedy with vivid and chilling tales of perseverance, heroism, and mass death.
Throughout the book, the author brings insight to the forces that drive storms and storm damage-knowledge not available to weather observers at the end of the 19th century. He also reveals how a rivalry between weather bureaus in the United States and Cuba contributed to the U.S. Weather Bureau's failure to provide sufficient storm warning. Cuban experts' warnings of a hurricane, the U.S. weather hierarchy decided, were alarmist and not worthy of public attention.
Later the U.S. Weather Bureau would take credit for issuing the proper warnings - despite Cline's feeble protest of the lie. And Cline would one day wonder about the measure of his own responsibility for the thousands of lives lost.
The losses were extraordinary. St. Mary's Orphanage and nearly all of its 93 children were swept away-including young charges tethered in groups by clothesline in the nuns' ill-fated attempt to save their lives. Houses floated down streets, becoming battering rams as water from the nearby bay and from the Gulf of Mexico converged on the town, rising well above 30 feet in depth and above the rooftops of many two-story homes.
Dr. S. O. Young, a Cline acquaintance, was drawn by the sheer power of the storm as it assailed his home. Opening the door to a second-floor gallery, he hauled himself outside and was immediately pinned to the exterior wall by 125-mph winds. He remained there, agape, as he surveyed the unfolding drama.
Waves swept through Young's neighborhood, writes Larson, propelling huge pieces of wreckage. Within minutes, the only other house still standing began a slow pirouette, "rose like a huge steamboat . . . and suddenly disappeared" with the occupants, a family of four, still inside. "My feelings were indescribable as I saw them go," Young later recounted.
Finally, the rescuers came. As many as 500 dead, some were told. Seasoned reporters accustomed to hearing exaggerated claims soon learned that, in fact, this report of the death toll was a vast understatement.
Meantime, the Weather Bureau had not finished with its misguided claims, according to Larson. After the hurricane left Galveston, the chief of the U.S. bureau telegraphed a New York newspaper that the storm had lost its destructive force.
Not so. For the storm careened to the north and east, bringing hurricane-force winds to Chicago and Buffalo. It killed six loggers in the Eau Claire River, moved to the Atlantic, sank six vessels, and drove 42 fishing vessels aground near mainland Canada. Finally, Isaac's storm crossed the top of the world and disappeared into Siberia.
Loretta Kalb has covered earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters for the Associated Press.