The worst weather ever

isaac's storm

by erik larson


295 pp., $25

On Sept. 7, 1900, Galveston, Texas, was a booming, cosmopolitan city lined with ornate mansions and lush gardens. The next day, it became Atlantis.

Between dusk and daybreak, a furious hurricane demolished the city as though it had been composed of construction paper and Elmer's glue.

The wind blew windows out. A relentless confetti of lightning and thunder filled the sky. Roof shingles zipped through the atmosphere like Frisbees. Rain dropped from dark-gray clouds in Niagara proportions. Flood waters engulfed the first floors of all the houses and businesses along the picturesque shore. Many houses were capsized with families trapped inside.

More than 800 people perished, and the city of Galveston lost its promising future. To date, the 1900 Galveston hurricane remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history.

In "Isaac's Storm," Erik Larson chronicles the days leading up to the hurricane as well as the damage assessment after. The story follows Isaac Cline, one of America's first professional weathermen. In fact, Cline was the foremost weather authority in the United States and believed wholeheartedly that he could make accurate predictions.

Cline often boasted that Galveston could withstand the fury of anything Mother Nature could wield at the coastal city.

Tragically, his hubris caused him to persuade the people of Galveston, who trusted his meteorological instincts, to stay put when the great storm was thrashing threateningly at their doorsteps. Only when it was too late did Isaac realize his miserable folly.

The highest wind speed recorded by Cline was 100 miles per hour - and that was before the anemometer blew away. The weather bureau later estimated that for nearly two straight hours the wind reached a sustained velocity of "at least" 120 miles per hour. Some later argued that gusts of 200 miles per hour raked the Galveston coast.

Larson based the book on Cline's well-documented and sometimes personal reports of the storm as well as testimony from people who survived the hurricane.

One of the highlights of the book is the science lesson Larson includes on how Atlantic hurricanes begin from extreme heat conditions off the coast of Africa and then develop into the wrecking machines that swirl into the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

The only negative aspect of "Isaac's Storm" is the same one many people found with the movie "Titanic": The story, albeit thrilling, is one of grave human tragedy and loss of life. In this powerful story, Larson goes into graphic detail about how men, women, and children perished.

In the tradition of Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm," "Isaac's Storm" is a classic tale of mankind versus nature - which once again describes the capricious and sometimes deadly nature of weather.

*John Christian Hoyle is a freelance writer in New Orleans.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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