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A man, a storm, a book

“Isaac’s Storm” - the devastating hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900 - is the most fascinating book I have ever read about a weather event. Perhaps that's because it is not about the event, per se, but about the entire mix of science, sociology, history, politics, humanity and the incredible hubris of the times. book cover

I might add, that incredible hubris of America at the end of the 19th century feels a lot like the hubris of America at the end of the 20th century. There are several remarkable parallels as well – a cowboy president bent on empire, a faith in technology, and tragic events that caught everyone by surprise, taking thousands of lives.

But I don’t want to go too far down that road because it will diminish “Isaac’s Storm” which is an excellent piece of research and writing by Erik Larson. While I found it strangely erratic in its wandering through conflicts within the weather bureau, the birth of the storm in Africa, and the very human details of survivors and victims, I was at the same time captivated by all these details, including a side trip about Columbus. Yet, while the path he traces is only broadly chronological, it prepares you well for the day of the actual storm which doesn’t get fully underway until you are halfway through the book.

By then, however, you feel you are living in 1900 and you are both fascinated and frustrated by the main character, Dr. Isaac Cline, the local weatherman who is hailed as a hero after the storm. Larson sees him as something less, but the book does not simply build feet of clay for Isaac. What emerges is a picture of a complex man whose personal and professional destiny is inextricably entwined with this most deadly of all hurricanes to strike the US coast. (A tiny bit of arrogance sneaks into the books subtitle which calls this the "deadliest hurricane in history." History of the US, yes. )

I read this, mind you, in the light of my own recent recollections of Hurricane Carol, a defining moment in my childhood, but not nearly so dramatic. I could relate to the initial reactions of Galveston residents in the first hours of the storm – those kinds of reactions were my total experience of Hurricane Carol half a century later. But for Galveston what started as a great adventure for many ended in a horrible hell of crumbling buildings and people killed by wind, waves, and debris that flew about as if it had been shot from canons.

I need to thank Charles Orloff, for years the director of Blue Hill Observatory, for recommending Isaac’s Storm. He did so over lunch recently as we discussed his own upcoming book on Hurricane Carol. This is a terrific “summer read” and much more.

Related resources:

One thing you won’t find in “Isaac’s Storm” is pictures – the author relies on his own writing skill and the reader’s imagination and the book does not suffer for their absense. Still, you may be curious and if so you will find much more about the book, a complete photo gallery, and many more perspectives on the storm in this wonderful web site created by the Galveston County Daily News.The 1900 Storm: Galveston, Texas But if I were you, I would read the book first – then visit the Web site. (Hmmm...interesting that they call it a "storm." Part of the dispute the Weather Bureau was having while forecasting this in its early stages was wether or not to label it a hurricane.)

Buy from Amazon? While clicking on the link that follows will return me a very small revenue if you actually then purchase the book having come directly from this Web site, that's not the purpose. It is here primarily for your convenience. I encourage readers to shop locally and try to myself, though I also find it convenient to buy online. In any event, going to this link will supply you with other reviews of the book as well as an opportunity to purchase it.

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

And, of course, if you haven’t seen my Hurricane Carol site, please drop by – though there is absolutely no comparison between my experience and the Galveston event except they both deal with a hurricane. More importantly, if you have a Hurricane Carol experience, please share it. You'll find instructions for how to do so on the site.

Posted by Greg Stone at June 28, 2003 03:25 PM