Book Recommendation: Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

Has anyone else been doing a lot of reading lately? I love to read, and I read all different types of books, but my favorites are historical fiction and biographies. When I came across this book, I knew I wanted to read it immediately. The National Weather Service awards the Isaac M. Cline award “to individuals and teams who have made significant contributions in support of the National Weather Service. The award is named in honor of Isaac M. Cline, one of the most recognized employees in National Weather Service history.” Although I was well aware of the award, I knew very little about the man for which it was named prior to reading the book.

The book is a historical retelling of the events which led up to and occurred during the great Galveston hurricane of 1900. The story is told from the perspective of Isaac Cline, who was the chief meteorologist of the Galveston, Texas office of U.S. Weather Bureau at the time. The book opens on the evening of September 7, 1900, just as Mr. Cline is struggling to sleep and shake a feeling of unease. The first chapter of the book sets the stage of Mr. Cline’s personal life, describing his immediate family, which included his expectant wife and three daughters.

The sibling dynamic between Isaac and his younger brother, Joseph, who also worked at the Galveston Weather Bureau office, is set up early on in the chapter. The sibling ‘rivalry’ between the Cline brothers is a source of tension throughout the book, and is an interesting character study which is set in the context of the larger scale conflicts between the U.S. Weather Bureau and Cuban meteorologists, who were largely ignored by forecasters in the Weather Bureau. The standard thinking of U.S. scientists at the time, including Isaac Cline, was that it was impossible for a hurricane to hit Texas due to their tendency to recurve to the north and east, although the Cuban meteorologists were warning U.S. forecasters that just that scenario could unfold.

The book then goes into a discussion of what is known about the evolution of the storm itself, from its origins in the eastern Atlantic Ocean to its eventual landfall on Galveston. The saga is constructed, when possible, from ship records and other historical documents, and is told along with a layperson’s discussion of how hurricanes form (for those non-meteorologists who are also interested in reading this book!). Perhaps the most interesting part for me, that built the foreboding sense of doom to a climax, was when the author describes the story of the ship ‘Louisiana’, captained by Mr. T.P. Halsey, which sustained a direct hit by the storm as it was undergoing rapid intensification in the Gulf of Mexico. Captain Halsey estimated the winds to be 150 miles per hour, and the author carefully describes what may have been occurring on the ship as a result.

Courtesy: Library of Congress.

The most difficult part to read is the portion of the book when the reader obviously knows what is going to happen at Galveston, yet Mr. Larsen describes in detail the run-of-the-mill activities which were going on as the storm inched closer and closer. Even worse, the narratives which describe children playing on the beach as the waves increased, husbands disregarding their worried wives, and the recurring, detailed descriptions of the rise of the water over the island as told by observers on the ground were terribly upsetting to read. The storm surge literally covered the island with several feet of water, and as the events unfolded, so many individuals were left frantically scrambling for higher ground, despite the last-ditch efforts of Isaac Cline to issue a hurricane warning without waiting for prior approval from Washington, D.C. Although Mr. Cline later claimed to have warned people on the beach to seek higher ground, it is clearly the opinion of the author that he never did so.

The final part of the book describes the horrifying findings of the first individuals who were able to make their way to Galveston in the wake of the storm. Again, the story is told from the perspective of individuals on the ground, attempting to cross from Texas onto the island, and so the devastation which the storm caused feels incredibly personal. Mr. Larsen also describes which of the characters in the book (real-life people and families who resided on the island) did and did not survive. Isaac Cline himself lost his pregnant wife, although he and Joseph were able to save his three daughters. Mr. Larsen also discusses in (sometimes difficult to read) detail how difficult the cleanup operations were during those first few days and weeks. The Galveston hurricane remains one of the deadliest weather disasters in U.S. history. In 1902, construction of a seawall began on the island: it remains today and has protected the island numerous times and saved both property and lives.

The Galveston Seawall.

Mr. Larsen clearly did his research for this book. A detailed discussion of what the island looked like at the time, its conspicuous wealth, and detailed descriptions of some of the prominent (and not so prominent!) individuals who lived there at the time added great depth to the narrative and made it so engaging to read. It was so easy to imagine myself in scene after scene after scene as the destruction unfolded in real time. I found myself feeling very connected to many of the characters, who were real people who actually lived on the island. Their stories were reconstructed from letters and historical documents, but told in a narrative fashion which really brought them alive. Thus, when many of the individuals did not make it, it was crushing to read. The descriptions of weather conditions on the island during the storm, supported when possible by observations (although the anemometer at Galveston was blown off the building where it was mounted shortly after it recorded a wind speed of 100 miles per hour), are fascinating to me as a scientist and a meteorologist. Mr. Larsen does an excellent job of connecting the track of the storm to the weather conditions and impacts which were, or would have been, observed on the ground.

Whether you are a meteorologist, interested in the weather, or just looking for a really exciting novel rooted strongly in historical facts, I would highly recommend this book!

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