At the dawn of the twentieth century, a great confidence suffused America. Isaac Cline was one of the era's new men, a scientist who believed he knew all there was to know about the motion of clouds and the behavior of storms. The idea that a hurricane could damage the city of Galveston, Texas, where he was based, was to him preposterous, "an absurd delusion." It was 1900, a year when America felt bigger and stronger than ever before. Nothing in nature could hobble the gleaming city of Galveston, then a magical place that seemed destined to become the New York of the Gulf.
That August, a strange, prolonged heat wave gripped the nation and killed scores of people in New York and Chicago. Odd things seemed to happen everywhere: A plague of crickets engulfed Waco. The Bering Glacier began to shrink. Rain fell on Galveston with greater intensity than anyone could remember. Far away, in Africa, immense thunderstorms blossomed over the city of Dakar, and great currents of wind converged. A wave of atmospheric turbulence slipped from the coast of western Africa. Most such waves faded quickly. This one did not.
In Cuba, America's overconfidence was made all too obvious by the Weather Bureau's obsession with controlling hurricane forecasts, even though Cuba's indigenous weathermen had pioneered hurricane science. As the bureau's forecasters assured the nation that all was calm in the Caribbean, Cuba's own weathermen fretted about ominous signs in the sky. A curious stillness gripped Antigua. Only a few unlucky sea captains discovered that the storm had achieved an intensity no man alive had ever experienced.
In Galveston, reassured by Cline's belief that no hurricane could seriously damage the city, there was celebration. Children played in the rising water. Hundreds of people gathered at the beach to marvel at the fantastically tall waves and gorgeous pink sky, until the surf began ripping the city's beloved beachfront apart. Within the next few hours Galveston would endure a hurricane that to this day remains the nation's deadliest natural disaster. In Galveston alone at least 6,000 people, possibly as many as 10,000, would lose their lives, a number far greater than the combined death toll of the Johnstown Flood and 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.
And Isaac Cline would experience his own unbearable loss.
Meticulously researched and vividly written, Isaac's Storm is based on Cline's own letters, telegrams, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the hows and whys of great storms. Ultimately, however, it is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets nature's last great uncontrollable force. As such, Isaac's Storm carries a warning for our time.
Torqued by drama and taut with suspense, this absorbing narrative of the 1900 hurricane that inundated Galveston, Tex., conveys the sudden, cruel power of the deadliest natural disaster in American history. Told largely from the perspective of Isaac Cline, the senior U.S. Weather Bureau official in Galveston at the time, the story considers an era when "the hubris of men led them to believe they could disregard even nature itself." As barometers plummet and wind gauges are plucked from their moorings, Larson (Lethal Passage) cuts cinematically from the eerie "eyewall" of the hurricane to the mundane hubbub of a lunchroom moments before it capitulates to the arriving winds, from the neat pirouette of Cline's house amid rising waters to the bridge of the steamship Pensacola, tossed like flotsam on the roiling seas. Most intriguingly, Larson details the mistakes that led bureau officials to dismiss warnings about the storm, which killed over 6000 and destroyed a third of the island city. The government's weather forecasting arm registered not only temperature and humidity but also political climate, civic boosterism and even sibling rivalries. America's patronizing stance toward Cuba, for instance, shut down forecasts from Cuban meteorologists, who had accurately predicted the Galveston storm's course and true scale, even as U.S. weather officials issued mollifying bulletins calling for mere rain and high winds. Larson expertly captures the power of the storm itself and the ironic, often catastrophic consequences of the unpredictable intersection of natural force and human choice. Major ad/promo; author tour; simultaneous Random House audio; foreign rights sold in Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan and the U.K.