A Man, A Time and The Deadliest Hurricane in History
by Eric Larson
In the past few decades, the American media has labelled just about every intense and deadly storm to hit the United States as the "Storm of the Century." perhaps in terms of property damage, which continues to escalate, this is true. But for magnitude of loss of life, no storm -- nor other natural disaster in this nation -- has rivalled the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Conservative reports place the death toll along the Texas coast at 6,000; upper limits suggest as many as 10,000 perished; the "official" figure is 8,000 lives lost.
Author Eric Larson tells the tale of human tragedy during this incredible hurricane in his book Isaac's Storm through the eyes of Isaac Cline, who at the time was senior meteorologist and Section Director of the US Weather Bureau office in Galveston. Other insights are provided several other storm survivors who left written accounts of their ordeal, including those of Joseph Cline, Isaac's brother.
But Isaac's Storm is more than just a story about a mighty storm and its deadly visit to the rapidly growing Texas city (at the time rivalling Houston as the prime Texas port city). Isaac's Storm is also an account of the politics inside the young Weather Bureau and the hubris of several of the key figures involved with the Bureau including Cline and Bureau Chief Willis Moore. This is particularly evident in the decree by Moore that Cuban meteorologists, who knew a thing or two about Atlantic hurricanes, be muzzled -- prevented from even mentioning weather in any cable from Cuba to the US, let alone the word hurricane. Such was Bureau Chief Moore's desire to control all aspects of weather forecasting.
Even with today's level of weather observation and forecasting and available tools such as satellites, aircraft fly-throughs, global communications and super computers, meteorologists admit there is still much to learn about the birth, growth, movement and eventual death of hurricanes and other severe tropical storms. That men such as Moore and Cline could believe they knew all the answers a century ago is almost inconceivable, but such was the heady mindset in those early days of the Technological Revolution.
There is much criticism of the Weather Bureau and its leaders in this book, direct and implied, chiefly concerning their failure to provide the correct or even any forecast of the impending storm and blaming the Bureau for the high death toll. While much of the criticism is justified, particularly the ego of Moore and his desire to control all forecasts and warnings from Bureau Headquarters, I am sceptical that, even with a severe storm or hurricane warning, the death toll would have been much lower.
Why? For several reasons. First, there is strong evidence (with hindsight) that the hurricane became a monster storm over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico after it had crossed Cuba and touched portions of Florida. With no satellite, aircraft or real-time ship reports, few could have known on shore exactly what was happening at sea, and those caught in storm's fury aboard ships had no way to forward a warning. The few seasoned sea captains who suspected something was happening did so by observing the ocean's behaviour ahead of the storm.
Second, most contemporary experts believed that high winds were the main hazard in a hurricane, not the devastating power of the storm surge. Many Galveston residents sought what they believed to be safe havens from the winds in some of the area's better constructed houses only to be swept away by surging sea water. In fact, Cline later began research into the impacts of storm surges, which often account for 90% of a storm's victims, based on his first-hand experience.
(In the past two years, we have seen dramatic evidence that flood waters and resulting mud slides may also be more devastating than the wind. In Hurricanes Mitch and Floyd, rains and flooding have been as costly to lives and property as their high winds.)
Third, there was no precedent for the damage of this storm in the people's memory, and given a warning, many would have likely elected to ride out the storm, not aware of the potential surge dangers of the Galveston area. I have read that many people actually flocked to the Galveston shore to marvel at the spectacle of the immense waves crashing on the beach, only to die when the storm surge rushed in. Such curiosity prevails even today when storm warnings are posted.
Finally, even with a warning, there was no organized evacuation plan (residents had been assured Galveston could not be struck by a hurricane, despite several in the past decades), although much of the city was built on barrier islands, just barely above sea level. Only a few trains were available to move people quickly away from the coast, and transportation for most would have been on foot or by horse, both vulnerable to the fury of the storm.
In Isaac's Storm, Eric Larson provides a strong background of material concerning the men and organization of the US Weather Bureau of the turn of the century, which led to the decision not to issue a hurricane or storm warning for the area. He also does a superb job of telling the tragic tale surrounding the terrifying hours experienced by Galveston residents when the storm struck and the horrible days following it as clean-up of buildings and bodies began. Cline, for example, was able to save his three daughters with the help of his brother as their house was overturned by the storm surge but lost his pregnant wife. Only days later was her body found among the wreckage and miraculously identified. The story reads like a movie, by which I mean, the reader can often visualize in great detail the storm's fury and the panic of the people.
Larson's ability to paint a vivid word picture, however, does not totally make up for the book's complete lack of photographs of the storm's aftermath -- many of which are given on the book's website (www.isaacsstorm.com). These would have been a very powerful addition to the impact of the book. A few additional maps would also have been useful. There is a good street map of the area of maximum destruction, but the only other map is a basic hurricane tracking chart, which only names the obvious locations: United States, Mexico, South America, Africa, Europe.
In several sections, I feel Larson goes a bit too far with describing technical details in a more poetic fashion, as if he is trying to impress the reader with his meteorological knowledge. (I haven't heard the term Aitken nuclei since my university days 30 years ago.) While there are several spots where his science is either wrong or highly speculative, these will not detract from the power of the overall work for most readers.
Larson also occasionally gets his facts wrong, or perhaps fails to completely define them. For example, he states that the lowest sea-level pressure ever recorded was during Hurricane Gilbert: 26.22 inches. This is true if he meant, but did not state, "in the Atlantic regions." However, the global record for the lowest recorded pressure occurred during Typhoon Tip (25.69 inches) near the Phillippines in 1979. And the subtitle: the Deadliest Hurricane in History is also only specific to the United States. Tropical cyclones in India and Bangladesh have killed over 100,000 several times in recent history.
Isaac's Storm is a powerful book that should appeal to a wide audience on many levels. Although it is unlikely that a major community in the United States will be caught so unprepared today (New England was similarly surprised in 1938, but fortunately with less loss of life), there are valuable lessons to be learned here for anyone living along the Atlantic hurricane zone. And this book will likely be more widely read than the good technical books which deal with our vulnerability to similar hazards. If you like history that reads like a novel, pick up Isaac's Storm for a good weekend's reading.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
September 26, 1999
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