Larson: Isaac's Storm

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Erik Larson, Isaac's Storm : A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. New York : Crown Publishers, 1999. 323 pages, with notes, sources, and index; illustrated with two maps.

In the introduction to his notes, author Larson wrote:

It is one thing to write Great Man history, quite another to explore the lives of history's little men. [p. 275]

His point in that context is that it can be difficult to track down enough primary sources for a fleshed-out biographical study is one's subject is not one of history's significant figures, as Isaac Cline certainly was not.

However, I want to be obtuse and take a different meaning for this sentence. I am not a big fan of the Great Man approach to history. Rather, I believe that the most interesting and influential developments in history is the web of interconnected ideas that shape the zeitgeist that leads to more ideas. And so I was happy that Larson chose to explore the life of one of history's little men.

On Saturday, 8 September 1900, a hurricane of rare force landed on the coastline of Texas at Galveston. A huge storm surge inundated the city; large parts of it were under water levels that reached into the second stories of homes. Entire houses where lifted off their foundations and floated across town. Ferocious high winds drove the storm surge and tore apart most anything that wasn't already under water. People died by the hundreds; rotting corpses littered the beaches when the waters receded.

The people of Galveston had had no warning, and even when they saw the approaching signs, they couldn't imagine what might happen. This was still the earliest days of the National Weather Service and it was still far from capable of making knowledgeable, accurate forecasts of the weather. At the time everyone knew that hurricanes that crossed Cuba would travel up the east coast of the United States; such a storm could never turn west across the Gulf of Mexico.

Even when wind and barometer measurements told a different story, the officials misread the signs and insisted that the storm was following the course up Florida that they predicted, and was losing force. Worse, when the US officials had clear and precise data to the contrary from Cuban weathermen, they suppressed the reports as examples of Latin hysteria.

There was bad weather in Cuba—mal tiempo. There was also bad blood. [Weather Bureau chief] Willis Moore's passion for control had gouged a deep chasm between Cuban and U.S. meteorologists.

Moore and officials of the bureau's West Indies hurricane service had long been openly disdainful of the Cubans. It was an attitude, however, that seemed to mask a deeper fear that Cuba's own meteorologists might in fact be better at predicting hurricanes than the bureau. In August, Moore moved to hobble the competition once and for all. The War Department was then still in charge of Cuba [and the weather was still part of the Signal Corps], as it had been ever since the end of the Spanish-American War. Moore's chief liaison on the island was H.H.C.Dunwoody (now Colonel Dunwoody), the bureaucratic intriguer who had helped undermine Moore's predecessor, Mark Harrington. Through Dunwoody, Moore persuaded the War department to ban from Cuba's government-owned telegraph lines all cables about the weather, no matter how innocent., except those from officials of the U.S. Weather Bureau—this at the peak of hurricane season. [p. 102]

Manning the weather station in Galveston was one Isaac Cline, an unusually conscientious weather observer. Larson has chosen to tell the story of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston around Cline as his central character. This gives a dramatic movement to the narrative, although occasionally it veered a little too much in the direction of a high-tech thriller than I found to my taste. However dramatic though, Larson's writing is not merely fanciful but historically factual and backed up with research.

Isaac Cline, too, believed that such a storm could never afflict Galveston. He lived to regret his hubris. At first, even the good people of Galveston, believing that no real storm could do them harm, saw the approaching violent weather as a spectacle, something new to fill the dreary hours.

The enraged sea drew adults by the hundreds. A great crowd gathered at the Midway, a ten-block stretch along the beach with cheap restaurants that sold beer and boiled clams, and with ramshackle stores that peddled souvenirs, candy, sea shells, and stereoscopic postcards. The adults came by streetcar, hoping maybe to ride it out over the waves, but found the car had to stop well before the beach. They walked the rest of the way through pools of water. Many described the spectacle as "grand" and "beautiful." The rain struck like pebbles. The wind flayed umbrellas to their metal spines. Men and women facing the sea found their backs soaked, their fronts moistly dry. One witness reported that a few people, "with abundant foresight, appeared on the scene in bathing suits and of course were right in it from the jump." [p. 148]

As the signs increased that the storm would indeed hit and that the situation would very quickly turn very grave indeed, Cline later claimed that he ran along the beach warning people to make for higher ground, to run for their lives. He claimed that due to his actions some 6,000 lives had been saved. However, his claims were not consistent with other accounts. I liked our author's analytical examination of Cline's claims.

His story, however, does not mesh well with other accounts of the days. Of the hundreds of reminiscences in the archives of Galveston's Rosenberg Library, none mentions Isaac Cline aboard his sulky sounding the alarm. And there simply were not enough locomotives or coaches to accommodate the crush of refugees that, if his account were correct, would have sought to flee the city throughout the morning. The last train to arrive was Kellogg's GH&H train from Houston, as 1:15 P.M.; it could not have survived the journey back to the mainland. R. Wilbur Goodman took the last trolley of the day toward the beach and heard no talk of the storm among his fellow passengers. Many people did eventually leave their homes, but only after water began flowing over the wood planks of their galleries and under their front doors. By 2:30 P.M. Galveston time – the time Isaac says he recognized "that an awful disaster was upon us" – the streets within three blocks of the beach were already impassable. [p. 168]

In the midst of the suspense and drama that author Larson seems to favor, he does take some time for the science, too, integrating it remarkably well with his narrative so that it does not seem an afterthought.

At the very center of the eye, the air is often utterly calm. Sailors throughout history have reported seeing stars at night, blue sky during the day. Often, however, the eye is neither clear no cloudy, but filled with a liquid light that amplifies the stillness, as if the world were suddenly fused in wax. The sea, however, is anything but calm. Freed abruptly from the wind, waves from all quadrants of the eyewall converge at the center, where they collide and compound to form sudden mountains of undirected energy.

Sunlight playing in the eyes of cyclones produced colors that drove brave seamen to their knees. Captains reported olive-green clouds and a spectral blue light that stained sails and the faces of men until all seemed turned to ice. In 1912, the Reverend J.J.Williams of Black River, Jamaica, saw the sky begin to bleed. "Around the entire horizon was a ring of blood-red fire, shading away to a brilliant amber at the zenith. The sky, in fact (it was near the hour of sunset), formed one great fiery dome of reddish light that shone through the descending rain."

The eyewall is an impossibly hostile realm where air flowing toward the center reaches its highest velocity. observers trapped in a cyclone's eye consistently reported hearing a great roar as the calm passed and the opposite eyewall approached. The frightened Malay crew of a ship off Sumatra called this chorus the Devil's Voice. To Gilbert McQueen, commanding a ship bound for London, the eyewall sang its advance in "numberless voices, elevated to the highest tone of screaming." [p. 120]

I fussed somewhat above about Erik Larson's narrative style, but overall he told a very interesting story that deftly combines several interesting historical elements: the storm and its incredible destruction, the growing pains of the Weather Bureau, attitudes towards the weather and towards science in America in 1900, and a fair understanding of what hurricanes are and what we know about them. Not only that but he combined these elements with a narrative style and voice that was casual and easy to read, without doing violence to their scientific or historic integrity.

-- Notes by JNS

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