Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

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I knocked out one of my New Year’s resolution books, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson, about the devastating hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900. The book’s title comes from the main character Isaac Cline, the head of Galveston’s weather bureau.

I found it both very entertaining and very informative. Written in much the same style as Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, it intertwine Cline’s career, the history of weather forecasting and a good look at the people and city of Galveston at the turn of the century (or two.)

A brief history of hurricanes and a chronology of this particular storm as it moves across from the Atlantic into the Caribbean, precedes many chapters. Also included is how weather coverage, and even the considerations of whether air has mass and volume are dealt with, including some of history’s famous and not so famous. Along with Aristotle, Galileo, Christopher Columbus, Evangelista Torricelli,  Philo of Byzantium are Abalard of Bath all walk through the book. As do a large number of storms.

He provides a fascinating glimpse of the early days of the history of the weather bureau. It’s switching from control by the Army to Agriculture, its internal politics and how that impacted the reporting of hurricanes. In its early history there was certainly a colorful cast of characters ranging from embezzlers, grave robbers, pornographers and more. I may have to find a book on the department now that it sounds so fascinating.

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One interesting part of this is the rivalry between the native Cuban weather forecasters and the Americans who looked down upon them, and who now controlled the island after the Spanish American War. The Cubans called the storm correctly while the Americans missed by a good deal.

He story brings in number of other interesting people, some only for a second. Take for instance Sir Francis Beaufort, the developer of the Beaufort Wind Scale that is used to judge wind and storms. After he developed his system the British Royal Navy adopted it. The first captain to use it was Robert FitzRoy, himself an amateur meteorologist.  On his first journey with the scale he had onboard a young naturalist named Charles Darwin.

Others pace through the pages for a quick cameo, from Galveston resident and future award winning Hollywood director and writer  King Vidor, angle of mercy Clara Barton and publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  One character that sounded very interesting, but mentioned only in passing was William Marsh Rice, an aging New York millionaire who decided to move his business from Galveston to Houston after the storm. Why was this interesting? It led to his valet and lawyer to hurry up their push to poison him and steal his fortune. If his name sounds vaguely familiar it is because his fortune founded William Rice Institute for the Advancement of Letters, or as it is better known today, Rice University.

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When the storm hits Galveston he clearly shows the devastation and impact on many families, including the Clines. You get a solid feel for how the geography of both Galveston the town and the water that surrounds it affected the impact of the storm.  Entire neighborhoods are destroyed. A moving wall of debris scours everything in its path, something that if I had seen in a movie I would most likely have scoffed at the idea.

The aftermath is heartrending. No space to bury bodies, and many unidentified or lost for every. Trains, bridges, ships, livestock, convents and more all washed away. It is nice to see how much aid and support came to the city, from the US Government, states, institutions (The Kansas State Insane Asylum sent $12.25) and individuals.

It’s interesting to note that at least two of the people involved, in the non-meteorologist category, traveled with portable barometers. I wonder how common that was? I now also now want to learn more about how they work.

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