'Isaac's Storm' goes to show that we never learn

August 13, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Sept. 8, 2000, will mark the hundredth anniversary of the worst natural disaster in American history.

Can you guess what that natural disaster was? Historians still can't agree how many lives it claimed. Was it 5,000 or 6,000? More?

The event was a hurricane, a super hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston, Texas.

Author Erik Larson writes about it in the new paperback edition of "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History" (Vintage, 2000, $13).

As disaster stories go, this nonfiction work is very good especially because it's a story that has never fully been told before.

But Larson is at times a little over-dramatic. He specializes in punchy, ironic two-or-three word sentences meant to provide extra emphasis, but when you're describing an event in which thousands lost their lives, extra punch isn't really needed. However, aside from that one literary device, I found "Isaac's Storm" fascinating.

As Larson writes: "This is the story of Isaac and his time in America, the last turning of the centuries, when the hubris of men led them to believe they could disregard even nature itself."

He describes meteorologist Isaac Cline's fatal miscalculation, which led him to downplay the oncoming storm and to lend false assurance to those around him that Galveston would be safe.

Author Larson, who lives in Seattle, will return to Galveston in September to help commemorate the 1900 storm.

It's hard to imagine how Isaac Cline will be memorialized since, according to Larson, he is the one man responsible for not sounding an adequate alarm. Worse, as time went on, Cline made himself out to be a hero. Since so few people survived the hurricane, not many people were left to argue the point with him.

"He's not the hero he was made out to be, but whether he actually lied about his role I don't know," said Larson. If Cline, his pregnant wife and their children had gone to his office they would have survived the deluge.

"I'm mystified as to why they didn't," said Larson. "But it comes down to this hubris and collateral belief that his house was strong enough."

Larson hopes that no storm will hit Galveston while he is there next month. The city fathers did build a sea wall after the disaster but it's quite old and could withstand a hurricane of a category 1 or 2, perhaps. The 1900 storm was a category 4 or 5.

"Contemporary hurricane guys still think Galveston is a dangerous place," said Larson.

Larson said stumbling upon the story of the killer hurricane was truly an accident.

"I thought I was doing a story on William Marsh Rice, whose money founded Rice University in Houston," he said. "Rice was gradually being poisoned with doses of arsenic by a close associate when the hurricane struck in nearby Galveston, which led me to read about the hurricane.

"I was appalled and completely intrigued by the tremendous event which was virtually unknown outside Texas," he added. "I'm a hostile-weather junky. I love all hostile weather, except for extreme heat."

Larson grew up on Long Island and went to the University of Pennsylvania where he studied Russian history. He then attended Columbia and earned a degree in journalism in 1978.

He said the success of "Isaac's Storm" has enabled him to become an independent fulltime writer.

"But I hate it when people call it a disaster book," he said. He thinks of himself as an animator of history as much as a journalist and spent endless hours looking through little-disturbed archives in order to find information about a human being through whose eyes he could describe the whole storm experience.

"They say that historians leave all the good stuff in the footnotes," he said. "I didn't want to do that. I wanted to describe what things smelled like, what the weather was like leading up to the storm, what the town was like.

"I'm a library junky, too," he said. His idea of heaven might be to experience a category 5 hurricane from the safety of a library. It was in a weather library that he found an article that Isaac Cline wrote, in which he claimed that a tropical hurricane could do no damage to Galveston.

"The hair on the back of my neck stood up," said Larson. "I knew I had found my guy."

However, Larson said we shouldn't be too quick to condemn Cline. The hubris of 21st century scientists is if anything more acute than it was in his day.

"For instance, we are racing to build an airplane that will carry 800 passengers," he said. "Not a single article has raised the question of what will happen when there's an 800-person disaster. We are pushing technology to the edge without think of about the reality. Nature bites.

"You would think that we learn, but we don't. "

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