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Erik Larson, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

At the end of the 19th century, the herald of the coming of the 20th century, a great confidence, bordering on arrogance, suffused America. Isaac Cline was one of the era's new men, a meteorological scientist who believed that 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 lived and worked, seemed to him preposterous, "an absurd delusion." 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 of Mexico. And yet . . .

During August of 1900, a strange, prolonged heat wave gripped America, killing scores of people in New York and Chicago. Odd things seemed to happen everywhere: A plague of crickets engulfed Waco, Texas. The Bering Glacier began to shrink. Rain fell on Galveston, Texas with more intensity than anyone could remember. Far away, in Africa, immense thunderstorms blossomed over the city of Dakar, and huge currents of wind converged. A wave of great atmospheric turbulence emerged from the coast of western Africa. Most such waves faded away quickly. This one did not.

On September 8, 1900, Galveston was hit by the deadliest hurricane in history. The damage to physical plant, including residences, factories, stores and shops, and all other aspects of what was then a great, then-modern city ran into the billions, in spite of the era's far lower prices and costs than are the case now. Estimates of the number of the dead ran as high as 10,000-plus lives lost, a number far greater than the combined death toll of the Johnstown Flood and the the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And the damage was far worse than it would have been if accurate hurricane warnings had been issued to Galveston once the Cuban meteorological reports of the coming storm and its likely path were reported.

Unfortunately, the men in charge of the American Weather Bureau were pompous souls driven far more by the hunger of their egos to be seen as always right and always in control of everything than by any desire to keep Americans as safe as possible from the ravages of storms and real scientific curiosity. As a result, the information that the people of Galveston needed to protect themselves, their children, their pets, and any livestock was not given to them until after the hurricane had passed, which was why the damage and the death-toll were so horrendous.

Part of the problem was that those in charge of the American Weather Bureau wanted nothing to do with the warnings coming from the Belen Observatory in Cuba. The American Weather Bureau was obsessed with controlling hurricane forecasts, even though Cuba's own native weathermen had pioneered hurricane science. As the Weather Bureau's forecasters assured America that all was calm in the Caribbean, Cuba's own weathermen, whom the Weather Bureau believed were "superstitious" and "poets rather than scientists," Cuba's own weathermen were alarmed by 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 living man had ever experienced, with winds of up to 150 miles per hour and, apparently, a mind and will of its own. The storm was not playing fair. It didn't abide by the rules that the Weather Bureau had laid down for hurricanes. It was a true monster -- but those living in Galveston remained blissfully ignorant of what they were really dealing with until it was right on top of them.

In Galveston, reassured by Isaac Cline's belief that no hurricane could seriously harm Galveston, 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 cerise sky -- until the surf began ripping the city's beloved beachfront apart, tearing the beach bathhouses into so much broken timber, torn metal, and shredded cloth. Within the next few hours Galveston would endure a hurricane that to this day remains the nation's deadliest natural disaster.

And Isaac Cline would experience his own unbearable losses.

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 current understanding of the hows and whys of great storms. Ultimately, however, it is the story of what can happen when human arrogance and bigotry meets nature's great uncontrollable forces. And thus Isaac's Storms carries a warning for our times.


Let's Roll
Yael Dragwyla

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