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Southern Cultures 7.4 (2001) 104-107

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Book Review

Isaac's Storm A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

Galveston and the 1900 Storm Catastrophe and Catalyst

Through a Night of Horrors Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. By Erik Larson. Vintage Books, 2000. 323 pp. Cloth $25.00, paper $13.00

Galveston and the 1900 Storm: Catastrophe and Catalyst. By Patricia Bellis Bixel and Elizabeth Hayes Turner. University of Texas Press, 2000. 174 pp. Cloth $60.00, paper $27.95

Through a Night of Horrors: Voices from the 1900 Galveston Storm. Edited by Casey Edward Greene and Shelly Henley Kelly. Texas A&M University Press, 2000. 206 pp. Cloth $24.95

For centuries, great earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and blizzards have left cars on the land and challenged the fortitude of the American people. A few of these disasters have achieved legendary status, while others remain relatively unknown. One whose story is now being retold stands apart from the rest, for it claimed more lives than the Johnstown Flood, the Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake, and the Great Mississippi Flood combined. In one wretched night of wind and water in September 1900, Galveston, Texas, endured a great hurricane that is still regarded as the deadliest natural disaster ever known to strike American soil.

In the national bestseller Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, author Erik Larson goes far beyond a simple recounting of the tragedy. [End Page 104] His story is focused on Isaac Monroe Cline, the U.S. Weather Bureau's meteorologist-in-charge in Galveston, and his life as a scientist, family man, and survivor. But through prodigious research, Larson broadens the context by revealing the primitive emergence of hurricane forecasting, the imperious bureaucracy of the Weather Bureau, and the physical details of the blossoming port of Galveston.

Cline's world is further defined through generous accounts of his training as a weatherman and his self-assured role as a turn-of-the-century man of science. His neighbors, friends, and family surround him in the text; we feel the connectedness of all those who fell victim to the disaster. We also learn of Cline's lifelong rivalry with his brother, Joseph, the subordinate forecaster, and the great personal losses that would haunt him until his death.

And then there was the storm. The hurricane itself remains hidden through much of the book, just as it was unseen and poorly judged by Weather Bureau forecasters until it was virtually upon the city. In the days before landfall, Cline was misled by a stream of erroneous communications about the storm from his superiors in Washington, D.C. His own instincts only sharpened when massive swells began to rumble onto Galveston beach just hours before the hurricane's arrival. In the end, his humility was served with a heavy dose of irony. Although he perhaps knew as much about tropical cyclones as any man in the Weather Bureau, he was unable to foresee the magnitude of the disaster in time to call for meaningful evacuations.

Still recognized today by the National Hurricane Center as among the most powerful ever to sweep ashore in the United States, the hurricane made fools of our best weathermen and was the turning point in the history of Galveston. The wind was not the story. Instead, Galveston and its hapless inhabitants were overwhelmed by the storm's tidal surge, which lifted the Gulf of Mexico to the sills of third story windows and violently dismantled every structure in its path. Cline and his family were caught, along with countless others, in the darkened terror of crashing homes. Thousands died that night, and Larson describes the ordeals of many who were tortured by the tide.

In the light of the following morning, we learn that Cline...