Sunday, July 12, 2009

Isaac's Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
by Erik Larson
Random House, August 1999
hardcover, 324 pages, including notes, sources, index
ISBN-13: 9780609602331
reread, very highly recommended - one of the best

Synopsis from the publisher:
September 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 devastating 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.
My thoughts

Both Wonder Boy (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

(Summer Lovin' Challenge)


September 8, 1900
Throughout the night of Friday, September 7, 1900, Isaac Monroe Cline found himself waking to a persistent sense of something gone wrong. opening

Upon first meeting Isaac, men found him to be modest and self-effacing, but those who came to know him well saw a hardness and confidence that verged on conceit. pg. 4

...Isaac was aware of himself and how he moved through the day, and saw himself as something bigger than a mere recorder of rainfall and temperature. He was a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in a rheumatoid knee. Isaac personally had encountered and explained some of the strangest atmospheric phenomena a weatherman could ever hope to experience, but also had read the works of the most celebrated meteorologists and physical geographers of the nineteenth century, men like Henry Piddington, Matthew Fontaine Maury, William Redfield, and James Espy, and he had followed their celebrated hunt for the Law of Storms. He believed deeply that he understood it all. pg. 4-5

They talked about the weather. A familiar dynamic emerged. Joseph, as the younger brother and junior employee eager to prove himself, made the case too strongly that something peculiar was happening and that Washington must be informed. Isaac, ever confident, told Joseph to get some sleep, that he would take over and assess the situation and if necessary telegraph his findings to headquarters. pg. 10

Where critics most faulted Galveston was for its lack of geophysical presence. The city occupied a long, narrow island....Its highest point, on Broadway, was 8.7 feet above sealevel; its average altitude was half that, so low that with each one-foot increase in tide, the city lost a thousand feet of beach. pg. 12

Many years later he [Isaac] would write, "If we had known then what we know now of these swells, and the tides they create, we would have known earlier the terrors of the storm which these swells...told us in unerring language was coming." pg. 14

He had stumbled into the deadliest storm ever to target America. Within the next twenty-four hours, eight thousand men, women, and children in the city of Galveston would lose their lives. The city itself would lose its future> Isaac would suffer an unbearable loss. And he would wonder always if some of the blame did not belong to him.
This is the story of Isaac and his time in America, the last turning of the centuries, when the hubris of men led them to believe they could disregard even nature itself." pg. 16

Moore and officials of the bureau's West Indies hurricane service had long been openly disdainful of the Cubans. It was an attitude, however, that seemed to mask a deeper fear that Cuba's own meteorologists might in fact be better at predicting hurricanes than the bureau...
Through Dunwoody, Moore persuaded the War Department to ban from Cuba's government owned telegraph lines all cables about the weather....
It was an absurd action. Cuba's meteorologists had pioneered the art of hurricane prediction... pg. 102

[Clara] Barton was accused of withholding clothing....and of squandering money...The Palmetto Post.... called her a vulture. None of it fazed her. The same thing occurred at every disaster she attended. "It is," she wrote, "an unfortunate trait in the human character to assail or asperse others engaged in the performance of humanitarian acts." pg. 256


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

It has to be one of my husband's favorite books. Galveston is thirty miles from our house, and last summer we had a visit from a hurricane, so the story strikes fear in our hearts.

Lori L said...

It really is a great nonfiction book!

Anna said...

My friend read this one and thought it was pretty good. I'll have to check it out.

Diary of an Eccentric