An Unforgettable Storm

Weaving a nonfiction thriller from the strands of history.

On September 8, 1900, one of the great weather disasters in American history wiped much of the city of Galveston literally off the map. Winds estimated at 150 miles an hour combined with a 15- to 20-foot storm surge to inundate the island city, which has an average elevation above sea level of less than four a half feet. Houses exploded, caved in, tipped over, and floated away; slate shingles whistled through the air like knives; entire neighborhoods vanished beneath the rising waters. Estimates of the death toll ran as high as 8,000. It was the deadliest hurricane in US history, yet forecasters—both at the Washington, DC, headquarters of the Weather Bureau, as it was known then, and at the local Galveston office, headed by an intense and ambitious young man named Isaac Cline—utterly failed to predict either the course or the intensity of the storm. Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers, $25) In Isaac's Storm, Seattle writer and editor Erik Larson pulls off the astonishing feat of recreating the great Galveston hurricane and the lives of dozens of individuals who were swept up in it. Indeed, Larson, a demon for research, conjures up the very fabric of Galveston city life at the turn of the last century—its thriving cotton trade and opulent brothels, its newly installed telephones and festive bathing pavilions, its stately homes and street car trestle perched precariously "over the Gulf itself . . . through an act of supreme hubris"—and then stands back, aghast, at the spectacle of the whole thing toppling into the sea. The book has two protagonists—the storm itself and forecaster Cline—and Larson builds an intense narrative out of the deft juxtaposition and eventual collision of those two strands. The storm began "with an awakening of molecules" over the African highlands east of Cameroon and developed over a period of days into a tropical cyclone, fueled by warm ocean waters and ascending air. A ship captain first sighted the storm out at sea on Monday, August 27, and dismissed it as a distant squall; by August 31 it had reached the Caribbean, where it gathered strength and took a turn to the northwest, sending huge oily swells rolling through the Gulf of Mexico. Cline observed the unusually heavy surf before dawn on September 8, and though he cabled his alarm to Washington, he held to his conviction that "it would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm which could materially injure the city." This tragically misguided overconfidence is the defining characteristic of Larson's portrait of Cline. Arrogant to the point of hubris, Cline is the epitome of the late Victorian man of science—and Larson does a superb job of laying out the consequences of Cline's arrogance while neither blaming nor excusing him. Without giving too much of the plot away (and yes, though Isaac's Storm is nonfiction, it has a plot as taut and suspenseful as a thriller), I can say that Cline, like everyone else in Galveston, suffered terrible, intimate loss during the hurricane. Larson has constructed the book rather like a mosaic, with glittering shards that first catch the eye, then gradually take their place in a larger composition: a squabble between the US Weather Bureau and the skilled Cuban meteorologists working at Havana's Belen Observatory; the piano that a family of German immigrants has struggled to buy; a beloved family dog; a Catholic orphanage built at the edge of the sea. Each carefully chosen detail resurfaces in the course of the long, harrowing, brilliantly executed climax that begins when the body of a child floats into the train station on the rising flood waters and residents first realize that disaster is descending on them. The book gets its backbone from the melding of "human interest stories," science, and history. One madly turns pages to find out whether Louisa Rollfing survives or how long Judson Palmer's house can withstand the battering of wind and water; but along the way one acquires a wealth of information about the physics of storm formation, the intrigues, infighting, and foolish errors that stymied the Weather Bureau, the history of weather forecasting and weather instruments, and the salient features of some of the most ferocious storms of the past three centuries. There are flaws. Larson has an overfondness for heavy foreshadowing and leaden metaphors ("a scandal whose shockwaves would roll forward like a storm swell to shape the events of Saturday") that weigh down the narrative at times, and he leans too hard on stray details for "color" and historical context (do we need to be told that Freud wrote Interpretation of Dreams in the same year the Galveston storm hit or that a brand of coffee called "Tidal Wave" was popular in the city?). But these minor objections are swept aside in the full flow of this narrative; about halfway in, Isaac's Storm seizes hold of the imagination and compels you to drop everything else until you finish it. Comparisons with Sebastian Junger's best-selling The Perfect Storm are inevitable—but to my mind, this is a finer book in just about every way: more important historically, more vivid and detailed and accurate in its meteorology, more sweeping in scope, more unified in structure, more exciting to read. Isaac's Storm is a great book to take to the beach (though you may find yourself shuddering at the sight of the incoming tide) or to curl up with when the first gentle rains of autumn arrive. As you read, no matter what the weather, you'll thank your lucky stars that you live in a part of a country where hurricanes never happen. David Laskin is the author of Braving the Elements: The Stormy History of American Weather (Anchor) and Rains All the Time: A Connoisseur's History of Weather in the Pacific Northwest (Sasquatch).

 
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