Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on January 10, 2011
Galveston, Texas was one of the most vulnerable US cities ever built. The tens of thousands of residents on the island in 1900 were unaware of this fact. Times were too exciting to be concerned with natural disasters: the frontier had closed, the American West was booming, and the race with Houston was on to become Texas' primary port city. Besides, their trusted meteorologist, Isaac Cline, insisted as a rule that Texas was safe from hurricanes. Isaac's Storm details the disastrous hurricane that permanently changed the rules and the history of Galveston forever. Erik Larson's carefully researched book explains the systemic mistakes that contributed to the disaster and shares the accounts of those who survived the worst of the storm. Larson prudently combines the perspectives of the government officials, victims, and rescuers to tell a complete story of one of America's worst natural disasters.
While Isaac Cline serves as Larson's main source, the book is more of a story about the hurricane than about Isaac himself. Still, Isaac Cline was a fascinating character and Larson gives a detailed history of his early life and education background. It quickly becomes apparent that Cline was a good man trying to do his best to understand and predict the weather despite working for the incompetent US Weather Bureau. Isaac Cline's shortcomings were not directly his fault, as he lived in a time of limited technology and scientific understanding of the weather and a career dependent upon keeping his superiors appeased.
The Weather Bureau's Washington officials, headed by Willis Moore, were more interested in raising their own stature than improving their department. The Bureau's forecasts took on an aura of supreme confidence, characterized by a "complete absence of doubt or qualification." (Larson 114). Ignoring evidence to the contrary, they predicted the incoming disturbance to recurve northward before reaching Texas, since that's what all West Indies hurricanes did. In reality, the disturbance was a powerful storm guided westward by high pressure over the eastern US.
The Bureau also clashed with Cuban weather forecasters, who were decades ahead of their time due to the warning system established by Fr. Bernito Vines in the late 1800s. Larson's analysis of the romantic nature of Cuban forecasters may contain some hyperbole, but the primary theme is that the Cubans took the cautious approach due to the uncertainty of forecasting, while the optimistic US Weather Bureau would not even mention the word "hurricane" in its forecasts in order not to agitate the public. The decision by Moore to block weather cables from Cuba would be considered criminal by today's standards.
Since the Weather Bureau's leadership was counterproductive, the reader may hope that Isaac Cline will step up as the hero and save the residents of Galveston from impending doom. Isaac, the loyal servant, was not up to the task. He gave lectures and wrote editorials supporting the idea that the island was safe from a major disaster. One of the biggest strengths of Isaac's Storm is Larson's analysis of Galveson islands' attitude, corroborated by Cline, toward the island's vulnerability. At the turn of the century, Americans began to feel invincible to natural disasters. The iron, steel, and steam age was at its peak and people were rushing to western boomtowns with promises of wealth and success. Galveston was also in direct competition with Houston as Texas' port city, so it certainly could not show any sign of weakness.
Any natural disaster of this magnitude requires a perfect hit and a long list of contributing factors. But above all, the science and technology had not yet reached the level needed to prevent a disaster. In the 21st Century, people still live dangerously close to the coast, track forecasts can still go wrong, and people still are reluctant to evacuate. The difference is that there is an advanced communication and rescue network to relay the latest information and advise people to leave, or save them if they are trapped. As Larson notes, even a minor upgrade such as ship radios would have allowed the Louisiana to radio ahead and warn Galveston that a hurricane was coming. As Larson's map shows, not all of Galveston Island was covered in water, so the death toll could have been mitigated with any sort of definite warning about the hazard that was approaching.
Larson focuses mostly on the human and societal causes and impacts, but also includes a brief but dramatic elucidation of the hurricane's inception from an easterly wave into a dangerous cyclone. The account was well researched and is meteorologically correct, but the power of the storm is much better described by firsthand observations than by the combination of scientific definitions and vivid imagery of water vapor condensing, rising, and mixing while African children observe the clouds (Larson 22).
As a reporter and historian, Larson is charged with uncovering the "whys" and "hows" of the Galveston Hurricane and connecting them with the broader themes of US History. To an extent it is necessary to describe the basic laws of nature that govern the hurricane and the prevailing wind patterns that guided it straight to Galveston. Hurricanes are ferocious and extremely powerful, but their purpose is to redistribute heat in the atmosphere and ocean, not to punish the ignorant humans that dared build a city on its coastline.
The above is not necessarily intended as a critique of Larson, as his descriptions of the developing hurricane are pithy and limited to early in the book. Still, Larson's third-person storm narratives, specifically pages 26-27, are too melodramatic. Larson introduces Chaos Theory as the cause of the hurricane's formation and then quotes William Jennings Bryan's famous refute of manifest destiny spoken merely a month before the Galveston Hurricane:
Destiny is the subterfuge of the invertebrate, who, lacking the courage to oppose error, seeks some plausible excuse for supporting it.
The quote does sum up the errors of the Weather Bureau, Galveston residents, and Isaac, but the quote is out of place without a deeper explanation of the political and cultural feuds ongoing at the time. It would have been interesting and pertinent to add more about the prevailing culture instead of the mechanics of hurricane formation. Considering the number of mistakes leading up to the hurricane, one might have expected some redemption or admission of failure in Isaac's Storm's closing chapters. Unfortunately, Larson finds that little was learned. Galveston constructed a sea wall that has since held, but it was impossible to save the city's once booming economy. Willis Moore of the Weather Bureau fabricated Isaac Cline's account into folklore, suggesting that thousands of lives were saved by the Bureau and that hurricane warnings had been issued in advance. Neither was true. Moore wrote the storm off as an anomaly, a freak of nature (Larson 272). Larson notes that a few editorials were critical of the Bureau, but Moore covered up the injustices for the most part. We now know that the Galveston storm did not precipitate reform and history repeated itself in the 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane.
Considering the book's title, the most surprising conclusion is that Isaac Cline is not the hero of the Galveston Hurricane. Cline did his best, but his weather knowledge and instincts were simply not enough with the technology of the time and conflicting bureau instincts. Haunted by the storm, Isaac went on to become a leading hurricane expert, especially in the area of storm surge, which was the primary killer in Galveston. Isaac never forgot that his decisions cost many lives, including some of his family members. A storm of this caliber changes history forever and most of it is not for the better.
To aid understanding visually, Isaac's Storm could have benefited from some pictures of the devastation and a map of Galveston Bay. While describing the aftermath, Larson quotes several residents and visitors who explain they were left speechless or that words could not describe the devastation. Although the book omits pictures, it is easy to look a few up on the internet (see Wikipedia)
A map of the Galveston Bay area from the time would also have been helpful. Galveston Island's geographic location explains how storm surge battered the island from both directions, but it was hard to envision Larson's descriptions without seeing how the long fetch from a northerly wind could create a surge on the backside of the island. In addition, the locations of various railroads and the large bridge were left to the readers' imagination.
The 1900 Galveston Hurricane goes down in the record books as the deadliest hurricane in US History by far, with an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 dead. Considering the devastation and the wealth of available primary sources, it is surprising that it took until the 100th anniversary for an historian to write a full account of the storm. With hurricane science finally advancing significantly in the 1940s, a death toll of this magnitude will almost certainly never be seen again in the US. Unfortunately, science and advance warnings cannot protect property, and we have seen Miami (1926) and New Orleans (2005) both suffer long term economic damage. Future hurricanes will undoubtedly wipe out coastal development again.
Those who follow recent US Hurricanes may also be left wondering why the Galveston Hurricane was an impressive Category 4 at landfall, while other recent hurricanes such as Rita (2005) and Ike (2008) weakened before landfall in the western Gulf. The most likely explanation is that a warm eddy broke off from the loop current and drifted westward until it was in shallow water off the Texas coast. With no cold water below to mix upward, the storm was able to intensify in a region that is generally incapable of maintaining a Category 4 hurricane. Since Larson took the time to describe how hurricanes form, he should have gone into more detail about the loop current eddies.
Isaac's Storm is a well researched book that is enlightening and informative for both the weather enthusiast and the average reader. The chronicles of the weather bureau's failures are especially stunning. Where historical details were not available, Larson constructs a reasonable story to help the reader envision life at the end of the nineteenth century. The accounts of the storm are as vivid and terrifying as a horror novel. What is most interesting about Isaac's Storm is not just Isaac Cline's personal beliefs, but the defiant attitude of technological superiority that permeated through all levels of society from common citizens up to the US government officials. Galveston in 1900 was extremely vulnerable to any kind of storm surge and there was precedent from the 1886 Indianola Hurricane. Ignorance and overconfidence were a deadly combination.