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Michael Ferguson

Isaac’s Storm — Book Review

By April 23, 2013No Comments

Isaac’s Storm:  A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. 

By Eric Larson.  New York:  Vintage/Random House.  1999.  pp. 323.



This is a harrowing story of survival and death during the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.  The book bills it as the deadliest hurricane in history, however the hurricane of 1780, which struck the Western Caribbean during the American Revolution, and Hurricane Mitch of 1998, did cause greater loss of life.  But the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is right up there among the most deadly with an estimated 8000-12,000 deaths. This book is not only a story of the Galveston Hurricane, but it is also a history of meteorology and hurricane forecasting, a history of the U.S. Weather Service, and a biography of Isaac Cline, the Weather Service’s agent in charge of the Galveston Bureau at the time of the hurricane.

The book is a magnificent accomplishment.  I truly admire it.  It has been scrupulously researched in original sources at the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Rosenberg Library of Galveston, many of which have not been touched since they were deposited.  There are detailed footnotes.  It is a gripping narrative with many sub-narratives that interweave, yet do not get in each other’s way.  The style is very readable and draws the reader in and takes hold of you.  What I especially liked was Larson’s ability to create a pervasive tone of ominous foreboding amidst the retelling of rather mundane occurrences.  People blithely went about their daily routine business in Galveston during the days leading up to the hurricane without a clue what was coming.  Small decisions were made that proved fateful.  Minor events, seemingly trivial, contained a hint of menace.  Of course, it is hindsight that enables one to make such a reconstruction.  But there is also the lingering question of whether greater attention had been paid to certain small indicators, might the catastrophe been mitigated?  No one had any concept of the magnitude of what was coming.  There had been storms in Galveston before.  People, including Isaac Cline, constructed their houses on stilts in anticipation of flooding from storms.  They thought they were well prepared.  The problem was they underestimated Nature and the massive power it can unleash.

Many of the lessons of this story will seem familiar and timeless.  The mercilessness and indifference of Nature to the fate of living things and civilization.  Nature truly does not care if we live or die.  We are not being punished, nor are we being cared for, by anything that occurs in Nature.

The power of denial.  There are a number of examples of this throughout the book, but I will single out two.  Isaac Cline observed an interesting phenomena during his first summer in San Angelo, Texas, of 1885 (before he was transferred to Galveston).  It was a long, hot summer on the Texas prairie.  The Concho river was dry and temperatures went as high as 140 degrees.

One evening in mid-August he was walking toward town along his usual route, crossing the footbridge over the riverbed, when he heard a roar from somewhere far upstream.  Not thunder.  The roar was continuous, and got louder.   He saw a carriage carrying a man and a two women descend into the riverbed at a point where wagons and horsemen often crossed.  An escarpment of water that Isaac estimated to be fifteen or twenty feet high appeared beyond the carriage.  Isaac began to run.  The water caught the carriage broadside and ripped it from the soil.  Isaac reached the other side of the riverbed just as the water surged past him, the carriage tumbling like a tree stump in a spring flood.  The wagon passed.  Rescue was impossible.

His heart racing, Isaac looked upstream.  Men had gathered and with their bare hands were plucking fish from the water.  Large fish.  As Isaac walked toward the men, he saw a fish two feet long drift slowly by.  Me moved closer.  The fish did nothing.  He reached for the fish.  It kept still.  Isaac thrust his hands into the water, and two things happened.  He caught the fish; he froze his hands.

It was August in Texas but water had abruptly filled the riverbed and this water was the temperature of a Tennessee creek in January, so cold it paralyzed fish.

But where had the water come from?  Isaac scanned the skies for the rolling black-wool cloud typically raised by blue northers, but saw nothing.

Days later, townsmen recovered the bodies of the carriage driver and his two female passengers.

And a week later, the mystery of the ice-water flood was resolved.

Visitors from the town of Ben Ficklin fifty miles up the Concho came to San Angelo and reported that a monstrous hailstorm had struck about ten days earlier, the day of the flood.  The storm discharged stones the size of ostrich eggs that killed hundreds of cattle and fell in such volume they filled erosion gulches and piled to depths of up to three feet on level ground.  The ice melted quickly.

For Isaac this was explanation enough.  The deadly flood was the downstream flow of flash-melted hail.  He wrote an article on the incident for the weather service’s Monthly Weather Review, edited by Cleveland Abbe.  To Isaac’s “surprise and chagrin,” Abbe rejected the article on grounds it was too far-fetched to be believed.  (pp. 61-2)

Isaac was annoyed at this rejection and went on to document other cases of massive hailstorms across the Great Plains that caused great destruction.  They are not by any means unprecedented.

Another case of denial is exhibited by the U.S. Weather Service’s handling of the storm in its forecasting.  It was a widespread belief among forecasters at the time that all hurricanes followed a curving path from the Caribbean through Florida and then northeast into the Atlantic.  They did not believe it was possible for a hurricane to proceed from Cuba, west toward Galveston — but that was exactly what this hurricane did.  Reports of the storm and forecasts were issued consistent with these false expectations, but contrary to facts on the ground.  The Cuban Weather Service, however, reported accurately on the storm and warned of its danger.  The U.S. Weather Service banned the Cubans from transmitting their reports over telegraph lines to the United States. They enlisted the help of Western Union in this effort.

Willis Moore, acting Secretary of Agriculture at that time, wrote a letter to General Thomas T. Eckert, president of Western Union .

The United States Weather Bureau in Cuba has been greatly annoyed by independent observatories securing a few scattered reports and then attempting to make weather predictions and issue hurricane warnings to the detriment of commerce and the embarrassment of the Government service. . .  I presume you have not the right to refuse to transmit such telegrams, but I would respectfully ask that they be not allowed any of the privileges accorded messages of this Bureau, and that they be not given precedence over other commercial messages. (p. 106)

The Cuban weather raised vigorous opposition to the ban, but they were suppressed.  After the storm, with Galveston in ruins, The Cuban Weather Service’s Julio Jover visited H.H.C. Dunwoody, head of the U.S. Weather Bureau in Cuba, and had a contentious discussion about hurricane prediction.  At one point Dunwoody told Jover

“a cyclone has just occurred in Galveston which no meteorologist predicted.”

Jover, incredulous, paused a moment.  He said, slowly as one might address the inmate of an asylum: “That cyclone is the same one which passed over Cuba.”

“No sir,”  Dunwoody snapped.  “It cannot be; no cyclone ever can move from Florida to Galveston.”  (p. 114)

Although Larson’s book is straightforward history, there are many parallels to contemporary events.  Larson does not draw them, which is to his credit, but it can readily be seen that the mentality and often the methods of bureaucrats and government leaders seem to have a timelessness that transcends historical contexts.

Governments and corporations find it extremely important to control the flow and quality of information about public events.  It is through the selective use of information (or misinformation) that public attitudes and can be shaped and behavior controlled.  It is also how credibility and authority are maintained.  We see this today in the government’s handling of the Boston bombings, 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Kennedy Assassination, the Lincoln Presidency, and above all in the so-called “War on Terror”, that phantasm of the imagination that has no beginning, no end, and no fixed enemy, except whom the government declares it to be.  It is the ultimate power grab because it does not admit contradiction by any “facts.”  Actually, the facts disappear.  Reality becomes what solely the government declares it to be.  This same pattern can be seen over a hundred years ago in the Galveston Hurricane.

The biggest elephant in this room of denial and dismissal of imminent catastrophe is climate change.  This, I think, gives this book special relevance to events occurring before our eyes today.  We often see today, in the media and in the government, people who refuse to accept, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the earth’s climate is changing, that it is changing rapidly, that human activity is the cause of the change, and that the consequences are potentially devastating on a scale heretofore unimaginable.  It is very similar to the underestimation that the people of Galveston and the officials of the U.S. Weather Service made before the Galveston Hurricane.  People simply had no concept of the vast destructive potential of Nature and how quickly it could be visited upon them.  We are in that same state of impoverished imagination and blissful denial today before the specter of global warming.  There are some people who know and are trying to sound the warning.  But they are discounted and dismissed.  The scenarios of doom they paint are too fantastic to be credible.  Yet once these forces are unleashed, or rather, once they begin to break upon us, it will be too late and the outcome will be inevitable.

I once shared some of my concerns about this with a friend of mine, explaining to him that San Francisco draws most of its water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The pipeline from Hetch Hetchy to San Francisco crosses a number of major geological fault lines, but the concern I was sharing with him was that climate change may make our weather much drier and warmer.  If the Sierra snowpack were to disappear, and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir were to dry up, where will that leave San Francisco for a water supply?  His response, “Well, I guess we’ll just have to drink Perrier.”

Bureaucratic infighting and turf wars impaired the Weather Service’s functioning and weather forecasting became politicized.  It is worth noting that an important motivation for the improvement in weather forecasting was the military.  Naval fleets were often sunk by storms, and being able to understand and predict weather was important to maintaining military strength and superiority.  President McKinley ordered the creation of the hurricane warning service in the Caribbean on the eve of the Spanish-American War.  “I am more afraid of a West Indian hurricane than I am of the entire Spanish Navy.”  (p. 74)

Once the storm began to break upon the city and people saw they were in real trouble, there were divisions between people over how to respond.  There were sharp differences among family members including Isaac Cline’s over whether to move to a presumably safer location or stay put.  These decisions were fateful.  Many families perished as a consequence of these decisions.  Larson points out an interesting gender divide. Men tended to stand pat and ride out the storm, where women wanted to flee.  Many of these were their last marital arguments.

Much of the book is taken up with dramatic anecdotes of survival and death.  But many larger issues of great interest are also discussed along the way.

One interesting small point that Larson only mentions in passing, but I find worth drawing attention to, is a description of a walk Dr. Samuel Young, Secretary of the Cotton Exchange made the night before the hurricane.

Ahead, Murdoch’s pier blazed with light.  The crests of incoming waves seemed nearly to touch the lamps suspended over the surf.  There would be no nude bathing tonight — unlike other nights, when as many as two hundred men would gather in the waves beyond the reach of the lamps and swim frog-naked in the warm water.  (p. 130)

Apparently, there was a vibrant homoerotic culture in Galveston around the turn of the century.  I wonder how common such gatherings were across the United States at that time, before the suppression of male-male sex became firmly established in the culture?

After the storm there were so many corpses that disposing of them became a major public health issue.  Cremation was a rare practice in 1900, but many bonfires were built across Galveston to burn the many dead bodies from all over the city.  There was racism.  Rumors were spread of black people defiling and robbing the bodies.  Black males were recruited at gunpoint to help load and dump bodies into the ocean for which they were paid in whiskey (p. 239).  But the bodies were not weighted enough and by the end of the day many of the bodies dumped into the ocean were washing back up on the beaches of Galveston.

Larson notes the sources of relief contributions for Galveston.  The State of New York gave the most at more than $93,000.  New Hampshire sent $1.

One of the final chapters details how the spin doctors went to work in the aftermath to influence how the media portrayed the storm to the public and the Weather Service’s handling of it.  A lot of it sounds very familiar.

[Willis] Moore continued to portray the bureau as having expertly forecast and tracked the storm, and credited in particular the West Indies Service. . .   Most U.S. newspapers, unaware of the nuances of the bureau’s performance and inclined in those days to be more accepting of official dogma, adopted Moore’s view.  (p. 252)

Which was in direct contradiction to the facts.

Isaac Cline lost his wife in the storm — arguably in consequence of a decision he made to remain in his house.  The subsequent lives of many of the participants are noted by Larson, which makes for satisfying closure.

Willis Moore wrote at the time “Galveston should take heart, as the chances are that not once in a thousand years would she be so terribly stricken.” (p.272)  But Galveston was hit by hurricanes in 1915, 1919, 1932, 1941, 1943, 1949, 1957, 1961, and 1983.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, meteorologists still considered Galveston one to the most likely targets for the next great hurricane disaster.  Unlike their peers in the administration of Willis Moore, they feared that the American public might be placing too much trust in their predictions.  People seemed to believe that technology had stripped hurricanes of their power to kill.  No hurricane expert endorsed this view.  None believed the days of mesoscale death were gone for good.  The more they studied hurricanes, the more they realized how little they knew of their origins and the forces that governed their travels.  There was talk that warming seas could produce hypercanes twice as powerful as the Galveston hurricane.  (p. 273)

This is the not so subtle message of this book for our time that goes beyond its being a historical narrative or a gripping adventure story.  The conditions created by the warming earth and the warming oceans will eventually bring storms upon us of a much greater destructive scale than we have ever experienced.  People of our time would do well to heed the lessons of the city of Galveston in not being too smug and arrogant against the monumental power of Nature, which can outstrip our imagination for sudden and ruthless destruction.  We like to believe that the world is a congenial place and meant to support our lives.  It does not have to be that way, and it can change in a very short time.  Reading the story of Galveston can help bring that message home for whatever good it might do, and Larson’s account is as powerful and effective a recounting as any that might be done.