A Journalist's Archive

Isaac’s Storm
Erik Larson
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          September 9, 1900: Willis L. Moore, chief of the U. S. Weather Bureau, sends a telegram to the manager of the Western Union office in Houston, Texas. “Do you hear anything about Galveston?” Only through the hindsight of history do we know why Moore may have been concerned for Galveston’s welfare.
          Natural disasters are often compounded by human folly. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are current-day reminders of the truth behind that statement. But both storms pale in comparison to the deadly Category-Four hurricane that demolished Galveston on September 8, 1900. No  early warning system could have stopped the massive property damage, but as author Erik Larson points out in “Isaac’s Storm,” the hubris of those connected with the U. S. Weather Bureau directly lead to the death of an estimated 8000 people.
          When it comes to history, Larson morphs his research into prose that is anything but dry. By zeroing in on a few historical figures, he packs “Isaac’s Storm” with more suspense than a “whodunit” novel. The book is named after Isaac Monroe Cline, who moved to Galveston to open the “Texas Section” of the Bureau in 1891. We will get to know his family, friends and neighbors, and it is through their eyes that we will witness the destruction of Galveston. Who will survive? Who will wish they didn’t?
          At the turn of the 20th Century, “The New York Herald” hailed Galveston as the “New York of the Gulf.” Its thriving port led the world in cotton exports, and the White Star Line transported well-heeled tourists to and from the city. Upscale hotels, beachside mansions, fine restaurants with imported French chefs, and a active arts scene created a cosmopolitan air normally confined to east coast cities.
          Isaac, a middle class family man, thought he had found a paradise for him and his family. First and foremost, he considered himself to be a scientist, daily recording temperature, pressure, precipitation and wind speed readings. He also sought to uncover what 19th Century scientists called the “Law of Storms,” the atmospheric conditions that combine to produce thunderstorms, tornados, or hurricanes.
           Four years before the hurricane, Isaac built a two-story house on a “forest of stilts” in order to make the home “impervious to the worst storms the Gulf could deliver.” Yet as Galveston’s city fathers were debating whether or not to build a seawall, Isaac published an article claiming, “It would be impossible, for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.” Not only were his actions contradictory to his words, but his bold and reckless statement was particularly unscientific for two obvious reasons. First, the highest point in Galveston is only 8.7 feet above sea-level. Second, historically, other areas of the Gulf had been ravaged by hurricanes. Isaac read about these storms, and Galveston’s altitude was evident to all, so what prompted such a statement? It doesn’t matter, Isaac’s message was what everyone wanted to hear, including his Washington boss, Moore.
          Even with the modern tools of radar and satellites, it is often difficult to predict the path of a storm. But in 1870, Father Benito Vines, director of the Belen Observatory in Havana, believed it was essential for survival to find “warning signals” that would allow Cubans to know when a hurricane was approaching. He set up a network of weather observers and soon discovered that “high veils of cirrus clouds,” that look like rooster tails, were a telltale sign of an approaching hurricane. When conditions appeared ominous, he would then send a group of messengers, who fanned out across the island to warn the inhabitants of an impending storm.
          Vines’ work was continued by Father Lorenzo Gangoite, and by 1900 the Cubans were years ahead of the U.S. Weather Bureau in predicting the path and strength of tropical storms. But here is where the cultural superiority complex of the Bureau ruled the day.
          This is the section of the book I find most interesting and disturbing. For it certainly illustrates how the lives of innocent people can be destroyed by government officials when they are infused with an extreme amount of pride and prejudice. Larson writes, “The nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence.” America had harnessed electricity, one of nature’s superpowers, and the world was now connected via the telegraph. “In this new age of technology,” why couldn’t scientists also control the weather, or at least predict it?
          Read why Moore refused to listen to any warnings coming from Havana, and you’ll realize it had nothing to do with science. William B. Stockman, the local U.S. forecaster in Havana, ignored Cuba’s established weather service because he considered the Cubans to be “a naive, aboriginal race in need of American stewardship.” Moore agreed with that assessment, and ordered that all forecasts being telegraphed by the Cubans should be ignored.
          The day the hurricane struck, Galveston was supposed to experience fair skies, with “possible brisk winds.” Forecasters also said that the tropical storm which passed over Cuba days earlier was now pushing northward in the Atlantic, far enough from land not to be a bother. But the telegrams from Cuba predicted a far bleaker day; one where the “brisk winds” would reach 200 mph.
          As the storm gained strength, Isaac’s wife, Cora, pregnant with her fourth child, was confined to her bed. Her three other children were at home, along with Isaac’s brother Joseph, who also worked as a weather observer. As the waves crashed below the house, neighbors, whose homes were already inundated, poured in seeking shelter.
          Moving from one scene to another, Larson recreates the disastrous situation developing across the city. As water rises above the train tracks, a conductor urges the passengers to brave the wind and swirling waters in order to reach higher ground. Some follow him, others choose to remain behind. Now individual decisions will divide the living from the dead. Then there are 93 children at St. Mary’s Orphanage with only a handful of nuns to protect them. And in the middle of all the grief, the heroic action of strangers somewhat restores our faith in humanity.
          Galveston never returned to its former glory. No seawall, no matter how high, can erase its devastating past. Learning history is supposed to help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, lives are still unnecessarily lost during natural disasters. And that is Larson’s message. Beware!
          Beware when government officials think they have all of the answers. Read “Isaac’s Storm” because this is one lesson that may indeed save your life.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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