Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, Vintage Books, 1999.
While Isaac’s Storm has been out for a while, 16 years as of this review, I only received a copy last month when my sister and her husband ran across one in a used book store. In my mind any time one gets an opportunity to explore one of those treasure-troves it is well worth the effort and certainly time well spent. For those of you who like the digital conveniences, a quick check indicated the book is available on Kindle for $9.73. More than a used book price, but still worth the cost.
Isaac’s Storm is Larson’s well researched and very well told account of the September 8, 1900 monster hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston, Texas and killed over 6000 people. The story is told largely from the perspective of Isaac Cline, Galveston’s resident meteorologist for U.S. Weather Bureau. At the turn of that century the bureau was in its infancy and struggling to achieve some measure of credibility.
Weather prediction at that time was largely done via the careful collection of temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, rainfall rates and amounts, cloud observations, etc. at specific locations and times around the country which were then relayed via telegraph to a central office near the nation’s capital. The individual reports were used to create hand-drawn weather maps. The resultant maps were used to generate regional and local predictions which were sent back by telegraph to stations around the country, continent and world. Often these predictions were considered by the public to be no more reliable than one’s daily horoscope and the two were often printed together. The science of weather, especially large magnitude events like hurricanes, was a poorly understood and struggling effort.
As in any government bureaucracy today, there were strong and unimaginably arrogant personalities at the top of the young Weather Bureau who were far more focused on personal gain, organizational reputation, individual vendettas and following procedures ‘to the letter’ than they were about the best interests of the served public. Larson does an excellent job of researching various archives to piece together a tapestry of arrogance and indifference that is, at the same time, fascinating and horrific.
Finally, as with any well considered account of real persons experiencing a disaster, there are the individual stories of miraculous survival and devastating loss. Larson was able to piece together personal timelines for Isaac, his family, several prominent residents of the city, and most interestingly, a number of common poor and struggling residents. He tracks each from an early enough time to allow the reader to develop an affinity for those he follows, and carries their individual stories into and for a fortunate few, through the horrific events.
What makes Larson’s account of this event so riveting is his success in weaving together the stories of science, politics, and humanity in such a way that the reader is constantly engaged and eager to see where and how the various story lines intersect. Larson does a masterful job of bringing it all together as the hurricane blasts into the city, moving quickly from scene to scene to paint a thrilling picture of horrible loss, unimaginable devastation, and individual courage. To complete the work he follows those that survive through their attempts to cope with the magnitude of personal and societal loss.
There is a lot of depth to Larson’s account and it makes for an engaging read. The book alternately provokes anger at the personal and bureaucratic arrogance that contributed to the magnitude of the loss, sorrow at the horrific losses experienced by real persons in a real event, and finally a sense of satisfaction in the victories, both large and small, of those who survived. I personally found it to be a good reminder that even in the light of a 100 years of scientific progress, disasters “can happen here” and it is largely the strength of character and unyielding spirit of those involved that are remembered by those that come after. At 273 pages (paperback version) it is a fairly quick and rewarding read. I would recommend ‘Isaac’s Storm’ to all enjoy real stories about real people in a real crises.