FROM THE MASTHEAD
A STORM FOR THE AGES
This past October, I was sitting at a noisy, packed restaurant bar in New York City having a salad for dinner, minding my own business, engrossed in a book I couldn’t put down, when a guy took the seat next to me. As he sat down, he asked, “Is that the hurricane book?”
It was Erik Larson’s fantastic “Isaac’s Storm,” which chronicles the September 8, 1900 hurricane that took 8,000 to 12,000 lives and left the city of Galveston, Texas, in ruins. Even today, it remains the deadliest hurricane in American history.
Larson is a master of the nonfiction genre. His books, including “The Devil in the White City,” “In the Garden of Beasts” and “Thunderstruck,” often are told in the context of cultural and technological transition: the dawn of electric lighting, Berlin in the 1930s, the invention and adoption of wireless communication. His stories focus on common folk and prominent people, and on how they interact with and influence historical events. His books are deeply detailed, meticulously researched and told in the urgent style of the best page-turning novels. “Isaac’s Storm,” published in 1999, fits that bill.
The story is told through the eyes of Isaac Cline, director of the Texas section of the nascent U.S. Weather Bureau, forerunner of today’s National Weather Service. In the last days of the 19th century, the bureau was under fire from many fronts, being of questionable value with forecasts often less than accurate along with egos and political infighting influencing results. It would be a stretch to call forecasting a science at that time. Weather stations such as the one Cline and his staff manned in Galveston were equipped with little more than a thermometer, a barometer and an anemometer, from which information was shared among stations by telegraph to produce daily “forecasts.”
As Larson tells it, while Cline may have been among the best at his profession, science and technology had not yet evolved to a point where he or anyone else could have predicted the storm that nearly wiped Galveston off the map in September 1900. Information was largely anecdotal, and communication was limited to the telegraph wires. Low-lying Galveston was a sitting duck when the storm tides arrived. Larson’s description of the sea washing much of the city away and the horrible aftermath is compelling.
Scroll ahead 117 years. We now view storms from satellites and aircraft with data processed through supercomputers and information disseminated in real time. We see the lows churning off the west coast of Africa as soon as they organize. We know enough to at least have a clue where they might go once they turn into the deadly saw blades we recognize as hurricanes. Forecasting now allows residents of places like Galveston at least a few days’ notice to evacuate, but obviously, it’s still not a perfect science, as we witnessed last fall, and have every fall since humans first occupied the continent.
As I write this, Houston, parts of Florida and the Caribbean are still recovering from Harvey and Irma. Six weeks after Hurricane Maria appeared on the scene, 85 percent of Puerto Rico was without electricity and a quarter of its citizens were still without clean drinking water. No number of satellites or supercomputers will reduce the damage from such storms, but at least we have more and better information than Cline did to help reduce loss of life.
The guy who sat down next to me in the noisy bar was meeting his girlfriend for dinner. Oddly, he, too, pulled a book out of his pack and started reading. It was a Norman Mailer tome. I can’t remember the title, but it must’ve been good. We both sat in silence, engrossed in the stories we were reading, safe and dry with plenty of power and potable liquids.