Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (Review)

At last, one of the books I actually intended to read when I signed up for Annie’s challenge, my weather event book, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson. I must admit that, much as I sometimes hate that the cell phone in my pocket means I am never totally out of touch, this book did more to make me appreciate our current state of technology than just about any other book I’ve read recently. Here’s the quick and dirty summary: Imagine if no one had known that Hurricane Katrina was coming. It’s not pleasant, right?

The man of the subtitle was Isaac Cline who was in charge of the weather station in Galveston at the time of the hurricane. A proud man who thought he knew the laws by which weather operated, he claimed later to have personally saved the lives of thousands through his warnings. In fact, the main warning of the storm was transmitted to the national headquarters of the U.S. Weather Service by Isaac’s brother, Joseph, who was a subordinate in the Galveston weather station. Already somewhat estranged, the brothers rarely spoke or acknowledged each other's existence in the years following the storm.

The time was 1900, and weather science and a national weather service were both in their infancy. There were people who knew that a major hurricane was closing in on Galveston, Texas--forecasters in Cuba. Unfortunately, Cuban forecasts were seen as unreliable and inflammatory by the leaders of the U.S. Weather Service; in fact, the Weather Service had established that Cuban forecasters were not permitted to transmit their weather information over telegraph lines controlled by the U.S. military. Without satellite and other technology so commonplace today, forecasting storms was as much or more an art than a science. Despite what someone actually in a storm might think of it, only the Washington, D.C. office of the U.S. Weather Service was permitted to call a storm a hurricane.

The hurricane in question had no name; named storms didn’t come until much later. If it had been given a name, that name, like Andrew and others, would in all likelihood have been retired in acknowledgment of the power of the storm. Larson does a superb job of describing the storm from its formation over Africa to its growth over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and its progression across the U.S. mainland after it ravaged Galveston. A reader doesn’t need a science background to understand and appreciate the description of the mechanisms underlying the storm; Larson describes it in terms of sight and sound. What would the clouds have looked like? How would the winds have sounded? One looks at a storm with a new appreciation after reading this.

Quality Rating: 10 out of 10. Written in the narrative style of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, Isaac’s Storm was well worth the time to read. The interweaving of the man, the time, and the storm was seamless, and the resulting woven story made me not want to put the book down.

Audience Rating: Anyone with the appropriate reading level and interest in history or nature in general or meteorology in particular should enjoy this book.


J.C. Montgomery said...

I had seen a program (Discovery Channel?) regarding this man and the storm which devastated Galveston, but now to find that there is a book. Wonderful! Thank you for a great review. I will definitely be on the lookout for it.

kreed said...

I have this book in my TBR pile...I have been toying with the idea of making it my weather title for this challenge. It sounds like I will enjoy it no matter when I read it - thanks for your great review!

Debi said...

Okay Jean, will you go get back to your fiber and stop reading! Of course, I'm kidding, but your reviews are killing me...my wish list is growing by leaps and bounds! Right now, thanks to you, I'm reading (and loving) Star Split and also have The Collaborator of Bethlehem checked out of the library. I have Sleeping With Ward Cleaver in our Amazon basket, and now this one sounds too good to pass up as well. Help!!!

Jean said...


Actually, I bought a piece of fabric today to try to combine with a felted blanket I made, with the goal of making a sword bag. And I don't think my next selection will grab you quite as much. It's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, so unless you're a data nerd, it probably won't rate with you. However, I can recommend a book for your homeschooling that I could have used for the animal name if I hadn't read it last year. That would be Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences. Yeah, I'm a word nerd, too.


Debi said...

Believe it or not, I have almost bought that book on more than one occasion! I used to absolutely love to diagram sentences all those many, many years ago. So it's really worth picking up, huh?