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

Erik Larson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 28, 2012
Category: Non Fiction

Isaac Cline was more than a meteorologist. He was also a doctor. A fastidious dresser, a model citizen, a pillar of his community. As the 1900s began, he was a man of his time — a man of certainty. Galveston was not, he believed, in any danger from hurricanes. The very idea that Galveston could be seriously damaged by a hurricane was, he opined, “simply an absurd delusion.”

Galveston wanted to believe its meteorologist. But then, it had to — the city had grown wildly, right up to the shore. And most of what was built was topflight housing, for Galveston was rich. It had more millionaires per square mile than Newport, Rhode Island. It was the biggest cotton port in America. It was visited by 45 steamship lines. It was progressive and tolerant. Soon it would rival New Orleans, Baltimore or San Francisco.

Isaac Cline, his pregnant wife and their three children lived just three blocks from the beach. Their house was built on stilts; it could withstand any storm. But on September 8, 1900, Isaac woke to a pounding of the surf — and then to a pounding on his door. That was his brother Joseph, his colleague at the Weather Bureau. Joseph sensed ”impending disaster.” But as the greatest hurricane ever to hit North America headed for his city, Isaac remained the height of certainty.

That certainty was costly. Eight thousand people —  and maybe as many as 10,000 — died in Galveston in the next 24 hours, as winds topped 150 miles an hour and pushed the sea across the city. Galveston was destroyed, its future ruined. And Isaac would spend the next half-century figuring out what went wrong, though never quite admitting he could have saved thousands of lives.

For once, knowing how a book ends means nothing — this is a thriller, a first-rate page-turner. And much more. Along the way, you effortlessly learn a lot about storms, the culture of a red-hot city and the foolishness of government agencies. Most of all, you learn a great deal about a mistaken man and the storm that made him famous. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here. To buy the Audio CD of “Isaac's Storm” from Amazon.com, click here.]

The minute-by-minute chronicle of the hurricane is the centerpiece of the book, and it will blow your hair back. For a storm that seemed of no danger to Galveston made a sudden left turn and missed Florida completely. Soon enough Isaac saw the waves rising. Even then he thought the storm was “innocuous.”

Suddenly twelve inches of water were in the streets, but you know how it is with unusual events — for a while, all is denial. The water kept rising. Joseph Cline urged evacuation; Isaac overruled him. A little later, the water level rose four feet — in four seconds.

Isaac used to believe the chief danger of hurricane was the wind. Now he learned what wind and water could do when they got together — “like a mailman delivering dynamite.” As the winds reached 150 miles an hour — or 200, perhaps — Larson writes: “The sea followed. Galveston became Atlantis.” [For an excerpt describing what happened to Isaac Cline and his family, click here.]

A fort was washed away. A steamship was pushed two miles inland. As for people, you’ll meet a few dozen — and learn how most of them died. And later? Well, later, a hundred miles at sea, sailors could smell the burning corpses.

Erik Larson is also the author of a book you may have read: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. His hurricane tale has the same exhaustive research and colorful writing. But it has something no other book can advertise — an ending that put modern Galveston on notice.

If you don’t respect Nature after reading this…