The year was 1900. The place: Galveston, Texas, a growing town with dreams of becoming the next Houston. The guy: Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau, sent to Galveston with explicit instructions to establish a state-wide weather service, while simultaneously improving the perception of the bureau as—gasp—ineffective at predicting the weather.
So much for that plan. On September 8, Galveston is hit by an enormous hurricane, which over the course of the day destroys the town, kills more than 6,000 people—some estimates put the total as high as 12,000—and lends both anecdotal and scientific evidence to what was only recently proven again along the East Coast: hurricanes are serious business.
Issac’s Storm is my third Erik Larson book; I read The Devil in the White City—about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—back in 2010, and In the Garden of Beasts, about the U.S. ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s ascent to power, in 2011. Both were decidedly phenomenal.
For the unfamiliar, Larson’s is a unique style and quality of historical writing. His books, though nonfiction, read like novels, and come equipped with dozens of pages documenting original source materials, everything from archived letters to old newspapers to almanacs of rural farming conditions. In an Erik Larson book, the sentence “The morning was warm as Sally fetched eggs from Bob’s Market,” probably has no fewer than three sources: the weather report for that day, a memoir or letter or autobiography written by Sally herself, documenting said eggs-pedition (sorry), and business records asserting that Bob’s was the only local outlet selling eggs at the time. Consequently, the overwhelming impression made by Larson’s books is thoroughness, and the sheer attention to detail needed to turn fragmented historical documents into a single compelling narrative.
In this respect, Issac’s Storm is no different. The book has a dozen pages of references, and is thus able to introduce readers not only to Cline himself, but to a handful of Galveston’s residents in 1900, some of whom survived the hurricane, many of whom didn’t (it’s a testament to Larson’s narrative skill that a character’s inclusion in the book doesn’t always mean they lived).
Isaac’s Storm also provides a gripping lead-up to the hurricane itself, during which time Cline and others in the bureau were far too concerned with other matters—like hampering the Cubans’ ability to release contradictory weather predictions—to be scared of a few dubious wind patterns. By the time the storm actually arrives, roughly halfway through the book, one can’t help but feel that a little more humility and a little less political and personal grandstanding might have prevented at least some of the 6,000 deaths that occurred that day.
Of course (and ironically), my other reaction to Issac’s Storm was a feeling of overwhelming helplessness. It’s true that recent-history hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy have come with no shortage of advanced warning (related fun fact: in the wake of the 1900 hurricane, forecasters took a look at the East Coast and warned officials that even a moderate hurricane ran the risk of drowning passengers in New York’s subway tunnels. Fast forward 112 years, and I’m mighty grateful for the weather predicting capabilities we have today). But ultimately, a century of technological advancement—in weather prediction and modeling, as well as in global communication—has yet to prevent these types of tragedies (the aftermath, not the actual weather event), so much as merely lessen their impact. In this sense, hurricanes (and their tsunami/earthquake/typhoon brethren in the natural disaster genre) are emblematic of the utter chaos that is Nature, which when it wants to fuck some shit up, as Jeff Goldblum reminded us, “finds a way.” (Note: I think Goldblum actually said that life finds a way, but whatever, this book wasn’t about genetically engineered sex-change dinosaurs.)
My only gripe with Issac’s Storm was a) the lack of photos (in his end notes Larson mentions referencing more than 700 of them, so what gives?) and b) that it isn’t Larson’s best (Devil in the White City is), which is sort of like saying “That isn’t the best gourmet macaroni and cheese I’ve had.” It’s still great. It still has an impressive number of ingredients. It still reminds me why I love macaroni and cheese, and how much I admire the people who make it. And most importantly, it’s still way better, a billion percent better, than any macaroni and cheese I could make myself.
TITLE: Issac’s Storm
AUTHOR: Erik Larson
PAGES: 323 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts
SORTA LIKE: The Perfect Storm meets The Wave
FIRST LINE: “Throughout the night of Friday, September 7, 1900, Isaac Monroe Cline found himself waking to a persistent sense of something gone wrong.”