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Book Review by Robin Widmar

“Isaac’s Storm”

September 9, 1900: Willis L. Moore, chief of the U. S. Weather Bureau, sends a telegram to the manager of the Western Union office in Houston, Texas. ìDo you hear anything about Galveston?î Only through the hindsight of history do we know why Moore may have been concerned for Galvestonís welfare.Natural disasters are often compounded by human folly. Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy are current-day reminders of the truth behind that statement. But both storms pale in comparison to the deadly Category 4 hurricane that demolished Galveston on Sept. 8, 1900. No early warning system could have stopped the massive property damage, but as author Erik Larson points out in ìIsaacís Storm,î the hubris of those connected with the U. S. Weather Bureau directly leads to the death of an estimated 8,000 people.When it comes to history, Larson morphs his research into prose that is anything but dry. By zeroing in on a few historical figures, he packs ìIsaacís Stormî with more suspense than a ìwhodunitî novel. The book is named after Isaac Monroe Cline, who moved to Galveston to open the ìTexas Sectionî of the bureau in 1891. We will get to know his family, friends and neighbors; and it is through their eyes that we will witness the destruction of Galveston. Who will survive? Who will wish they didnít?At the turn of the 20th Century, ìThe New York Heraldî hailed Galveston as the ìNew York of the Gulf.î Its thriving port led the world in cotton exports, and the White Star Line transported well-heeled tourists to and from the city. Upscale hotels, beachside mansions, fine restaurants with imported French chefs and an active arts scene created a cosmopolitan air normally confined to East Coast cities.Isaac, a middle class family man, thought he had found a paradise for him and his family. First and foremost, he considered himself a scientist, daily recording temperature, pressure, precipitation and wind speed readings. He also sought to uncover what 19th Century scientists called the ìLaw of Storms,î the atmospheric conditions that combine to produce thunderstorms, tornados or hurricanes.Four years before the hurricane, Isaac built a two-story house on a ìforest of stiltsî to make the home ìimpervious to the worst storms the Gulf could deliver.î Yet, as Galvestonís city fathers were debating whether to build a seawall, Isaac published an article claiming, ìIt would be impossible for any cyclone to create a storm wave which could materially injure the city.î Not only were his actions contradictory to his words, but his bold and reckless statement was particularly unscientific for two obvious reasons. First, the highest point in Galveston is only 8.7 feet above sea-level. Second, historically, other areas of the Gulf had been ravaged by hurricanes. Isaac read about these storms, and Galvestonís altitude was evident to all, so what prompted such a statement? It doesnít matter, Isaacís message was what everyone wanted to hear, including his Washington boss, Moore.Even with the modern tools of radar and satellites, it is often difficult to predict the path of a storm. But in 1870, Father Benito Vines, director of the Belen Observatory in Havana, believed it was essential for survival to find ìwarning signalsî that would allow Cubans to know when a hurricane was approaching. He set up a network of weather observers, and soon discovered that ìhigh veils of cirrus cloudsî that look like rooster tails were a telltale sign of an approaching hurricane. When conditions appeared ominous, he would then send a group of messengers, who fanned out across the island, to warn the inhabitants of an impending storm.Vinesí work was continued by Father Lorenzo Gangoite; and, by 1900, the Cubans were years ahead of the U.S. Weather Bureau in predicting the path and strength of tropical storms. However, here is where the cultural superiority complex of the bureau ruled the day.This is the section of the book I find most interesting and disturbing. It certainly illustrates how the lives of innocent people can be destroyed by government officials when they are infused with an extreme amount of pride and prejudice. Larson writes, ìThe nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence.î America had harnessed electricity, one of natureís superpowers, and the world was now connected via the telegraph. ìIn this new age of technology,î why couldnít scientists also control the weather, or at least predict it?Read why Moore refused to listen to any warnings coming from Havana, and youíll realize it had nothing to do with science. William B. Stockman, the local U.S. forecaster in Havana, ignored Cubaís established weather service because he considered the Cubans to be ìa naive, aboriginal race in need of American stewardship.î Moore agreed with that assessment, and ordered that all forecasts being telegraphed by the Cubans should be ignored.The day the hurricane struck, Galveston was supposed to experience fair skies, with ìpossible brisk winds.î Forecasters also said the tropical storm that passed over Cuba days earlier was now pushing northward in the Atlantic, far enough from land not to be a bother. But the telegrams from Cuba predicted a far bleaker day; one where the ìbrisk windsî would reach 200 mph.As the storm gained strength, Isaacís wife, Cora, pregnant with her fourth child, was confined to her bed. Her three other children were at home, along with Isaacís brother Joseph, who also worked as a weather observer. As the waves crashed below the house, neighbors, whose homes were already inundated, poured in seeking shelter.Moving from one scene to another, Larson re-creates the disastrous situation developing across the city. As water rises above the train tracks, a conductor urges the passengers to brave the wind and swirling waters to reach higher ground. Some follow him, others choose to remain behind. Individual decisions will divide the living from the dead. Then, there are 93 children at St. Maryís Orphanage, with only a handful of nuns to protect them. And in the middle of all the grief, the heroic action of strangers somewhat restores our faith in humanity.Galveston never returned to its former glory. No seawall, no matter how high, can erase its devastating past. Learning history is supposed to help us avoid the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, lives are still unnecessarily lost during natural disasters. And that is Larsonís message. Beware!Beware when government officials think they have all of the answers. Read ìIsaacís Stormî because this is one lesson that may indeed save your life.

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