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

(Crown, 1999; Viking, 2000)

While reading Sean Stewart's mythic fantasy novel Galveston, I learned about Erik Larson's Isaac's Storm, an account of the hurricane that devastated the island city in 1900. More than a narrative of the facts, Larson's book is a study of the social, political and scientific backdrop to the tragedy. Indeed, hubris played a part in the story; as Larson's title indicates, the hurricane and its aftermath were truly born of the times.

Central to the book is the biography of Isaac Cline, the U.S. Weather Bureau meteorologist who misinterpreted the indications that the storm was on its way -- no thanks to the Weather Bureau officials in Washington. Larson layers the biography of the storm onto Cline's story. From the storm's birth in the air currents over Africa to its journey across the Atlantic and into the Gulf of Mexico, the storm takes on a character of its own. The meticulous description of its advance fills the reader with anticipatory dread.

In addition to portraits of Cline, his family and his brother Joseph, who apparently felt a sense of rivalry with Isaac, Larson also introduces other families and describes their plights as the hurricane's winds combine with the ocean to pound the unprotected island city. Some would survive and some would die; the reader becomes invested with these people and keenly feels their loss.

Larson proposes that Galveston residents were misinformed and were ultimately victims of the U.S. Weather Bureau. The bureau's steadfast refusal to acknowledge that the storm was headed for Galveston, let alone that it was a hurricane certainly contributed to the loss of life. Furthermore, stubborn nationalistic pride on the part of U.S. meteorologists stationed in Cuba caused them to disregard warnings from the Cuban scientists.

Although Cline suffered from the lack of inaccurate information as well, he also underestimated the power of the potential storm. Even so, he later claimed to have warned thousands of residents to go to higher ground. The story evolved into legend which Larson gently and, in the light of Cline's personal losses, respectfully dismantles.

Larson's account reads like a novel, written in vivid and precise language that captures the drama and suspense and even poetry of the event yet avoids sensationalism. The victims and survivors -- many of whose own recollections were source material for the book -- are treated with respect.

For a truly compelling tale, experience Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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