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

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September 8, 1900, began innocently in the seaside town of Galveston, Texas. Even Isaac Cline, resident meteorologist for the U.S. Weather Bureau failed to grasp the true meaning of the strange deep-sea swells and peculiar winds that greeted the city that morning. Mere hours later, Galveston found itself submerged in a monster hurricane that completely destroyed the town and killed over six thousand people in what remains the greatest natural disaster in American history--and Isaac Cline found himself the victim of a devastating personal tragedy.

Using Cline's own telegrams, letters, and reports, the testimony of scores of survivors, and our latest understanding of the science of hurricanes, Erik Larson builds a chronicle of one man's heroic struggle and fatal miscalculation in the face of a storm of unimaginable magnitude. Riveting, powerful, and unbearably suspenseful, Isaac's Storm is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets the great uncontrollable force of nature.

323 pages, Paperback

First published August 24, 1999

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About the author

Erik Larson

61 books65.6k followers
Erik Larson’s latest work of narrative nonfiction is DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA, which became an immediate New York Times bestseller. His saga of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and won an Edgar Award for fact-crime writing, and lingered on various NYT best-seller lists for the better part of a decade. Hulu plans to adapt the book for a limited TV series, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese as executive producers. Erik’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, about America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter, has been optioned by Tom Hanks for development as a feature film.

His next book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ, due out in early spring 2020, is a story of geopolitical brinksmanship during Churchill’s first year as prime minister, but also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country house, Chequers, and his “full-moon home,” Ditchley, where Churchill, his family, and his “Secret Circle” convene when the moon is in its brightest phases and the bombing threat is highest.

Erik is a former features writer for The Wall Street Journal and Time. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's and other publications.

He has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, the University of Oregon, and the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and has spoken to audiences from coast to coast. A former resident of Seattle, he now lives in Manhattan with his wife, a neonatologist and author of the nonfiction memoir, ALMOST HOME, which, as Erik puts it, "could make a stone cry." They have three daughters in far-flung locations and professions.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 4,902 reviews
Profile Image for karen.
3,988 reviews170k followers
March 24, 2019
erik larson is the darling of the narrative nonfiction world, and while this is the first of his books i have read, i’ve long appreciated his commitment to cover-consistency:

and then there’s this one, breaking up the visual flow:

written in 1999, this is one of his first, and i can only assume that, along with growing into a particular font-and-layout groove as his career progressed, he also grew as a writer.

'cuz this one was kind of zzzzz.

here’s the thing - i am more or less freaked out by nature. not animals, even though i know that many animals would eat me if i indulged my impulse to hug them. but i'm totally terrified of the gods of weather. earthquakes? that is when the GROUND OPENS UP and you FALL INSIDE OF IT and then it crunches back together and you are SQUISHED. or you just fall so deep you can never get out and you starve to death* with a million broken bones. tornadoes?? those things throw TRUCKS at you, or they scoop you up and drop you into a frigging musical, which to me is way worse than having a truck thrown at me. volcanoes? that is a lake of liquid fire jizzing up out of the earth and turning you into this:

or this, if you are a dog:

not cool, volcanoes.

but so, basically i can never ever live in places where these things occur with any sort of regularity. i grew up in new england and now i live in new york, where the only extreme weather we’re likely to get (since global warming is a myth and ecology’s gonna stay consistent and predictable lalalalaaaaa), are blizzards - which i would welcome with open arms and extended mittens, and hurricanes. growing up in little rhody, we had some hurricanes, and they were no big deal, so when i moved here to new york, i kind of scoffed anytime there was a hurricane warning and people were out in panic-mode hogging all the bread and candles, especially when so many super-serious storm warnings resulted in nothing.

actual photograph of me during hurricane irene in 2011, wind whipping my tendrils:

and its aftermath:

my undramatic experience with hurricanes stripped them of fear, and while i was completely aware of how destructive they could be in certain locations, i was always very dismissive whenever the warnings came and i was like, “rain and wind - BFD!” and then sandy hit, and while i live in a borough of high elevation, and our biggest loss was this tree:

it was a BFD for a lot of new york.

but not as big of a BFD as isaac’s storm, which killed over 6,000 texans in 1900, although those numbers, like many facts about this storm, are contestable. in any event, many many dead, much destruction. and yet, as horrible as this makes me sound, the book was a little zzzz. so much of the beginning is about isaac-as-human and the shortcomings of the weather bureau at that time; all the political considerations and shortcutting and an inability to play well with others, disregarding the fact that weather systems operate on a scale lager than man-made boundaries and maybe we should communicate better with, say, cuba, instead of jealously guarding our observations or straight-up lying to cover our missteps. there was a lot of dry writing, a lot of repetition, and a lot of speculation involving what isaac was thinking & etc. the speculation is backed up by isaac’s own writing and larson did his research, as his thirty pages of annotations will attest, but i wanted more storm, less isaac. once the storm hit, all the gruesome details i’d wanted were delivered in full, and my weather-porn cravings horribly satisfied:

They drifted for hours aboard a large raft of wreckage, first traveling well out to sea, then, when the wind shifted to come from the southeast and south, back into the city. For the first time they heard cries for help, these coming from a large two-story house directly in their path. Their raft bulldozed the house into the sea. The cries stopped.

or (spoiler-tags used to hide names of deceased in what is no doubt unnecessary caution on my part):

There must have been warning. A shriek of steel, perhaps, or the pistol-crack of a beam. Some men had time to dive under the big oak bar along one wall of the room.

and died instantly. Three others died with them - Five other men were badly hurt. Ritter dispatched a waiter to find a doctor.

The waiter drowned.

basically, the book could have been one word long: hubris.

i am grateful to lena for this surprise extra book-giftie! once you get past the dry bits, it's pretty much a gripping horrorshow, which is what i like, as it gives me reasons to continue to fear the gods of weather.

*yes, i KNOW you would die of dehydration before you would die of starvation but this is my review and logic is not a priority. i also know the human body does not contain a million bones, so there.

come to my blog!
Profile Image for Nathan.
233 reviews199 followers
September 17, 2007
Ever want to read a nonfiction tragedy about a presumptive meteorologist? Exactly. Still, Isaac's Storm is an engaging cautionary tale, and one with a bit of relevance for America today. In fact the book is almost foreshadowing in that it was published just a couple of years before Hurricane Katrina. The writing in this book is not nearly as tuned as it is in The Devil in the White City, but Larson is still better at this than nine of ten nonfiction writers. Side note: when Katrina hit, several talking heads on CNN, FOX and MSNBC repeated the myth that there had never been a deadlier hurricane in the US. The next day, they apologized for a factual mistake, and started talking about Galveston, Texas and the events of this book. It's a good reminder that man really does repeat the same mistakes when he forgets having ever made them to begin with.

Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews660 followers
April 20, 2023
FOR OTHER FATHERS in homes not far from his the afternoon was playing out in rather different fashion. Suddenly the prospect of watching their children die became very real.
Whom did you save? Did you seek to save one child, or try to save all, at the risk ultimately of saving none? Did you save a daughter or a son? The youngest or your firstborn? Did you save that sun-kissed child who gave you delight every morning, or the benighted adolescent who made your day a torment—save him, because every piece of you screamed to save the sweet one?
And if you saved none, what then? How did you go on?
At 7:30 P.M., the wind shifted again, this time from east to south. And again it accelerated. It moved through the city like a mailman delivering dynamite. Sustained winds must have reached 150 miles an hour, gusts perhaps 200 or more.
The sea followed.
Galveston became Atlantis.

In 1900, Galveston was the biggest port city of Texas, bigger than Houston, on its way to rivaling New Orleans and even New York for national importance. But on Saturday November 8, 1900, one of the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit the United States slammed into Galveston, killing over 8,000 people and changing Galveston’s destiny.

Isaac’s Storm tells the story of that hurricane. It’s one part a biography of Isaac Cline, head of the weather service in Galveston. He was a product of his time, the Age of Certainty, when men believed they had reached the limits of science, and felt immune to nature’s power. The book discusses the science of weather prediction through history and up to that time, and discusses the bureaucratic rivalries that undermined the Weather Bureau’s ability to warn the public about the danger.

But the heart of the book is the day-by-day—sometimes minute-by-minute—retelling of the track of the hurricane across the ocean and its destructive landfall at Galveston. It reads like a fictionalized account, but it’s not; it’s a dramatized story based on meticulous research of the many written accounts from the survivors. Those stories, of the perils faced that day and the post-apocalyptic aftermath—with desperate survivors searching for loved ones while the bodies of the dead were being burned in huge pyres—are absolutely riveting and, many times, heart-breaking. A highly recommended read about the dangers of ignoring Mother Nature.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews554 followers
August 26, 2017
It's been 15 years since I read this chilling account of the event that annihilated more than 6,000 American souls in one fell swoop, but it still haunts me.

As Galveston and Corpus Christie brace themselves for Hurricane Harvey, this fantastic book is fresh on my mind.

Today, satellite imagery and long term storm forecasts are standard fare. We've all had televisions since our parents or even grandparents were kids. Before that, radios kept people in the know. This outstanding author waltzes us back 100 years to a time when gas lights reigned. We imagine hurricanes exploding onto coastal communities like massive days-long tsunamis with mountainous, unending surges over 25 feet high. Unprepared families were scrubbed away like leaf litter in a gutter while others in stronger structures could only gape in horror.

Larsen explains in detail that there actually were meteorologists back in the day, but the basic and scant information they received left them deciding on their own whether to raise the flag for panic or to appease public concerns. Trains washed away with passengers still aboard, and the bloated dead were left unburied for weeks, months, stuck in the shambles of splintered buildings and shattered woodlands.

This is the first Larsen book I ever read, and because of the quality of his research and the beauty in his writing, Ive purchased everything he has penned since. Don't miss out on this one!
Profile Image for Matt.
936 reviews28.6k followers
April 26, 2016
When Hurricane Irene made landfall last month, I’ll admit to feeling a tiny bit of storm envy. Ensconced in landlocked Nebraska, I could only watch on CNN and MSNBC as the winds slashed and the rain pelted and the seas rose. Friends on the east coast littered my Facebook feed with updates about closures, storm preparations, and hurricane parties. It was the last of these that really made me jealous. I love situational drinking, and a hurricane drunk sounded like a great way to wile away the windswept hours.

To be sure, I understand the actual dangers of hurricanes. I don’t need to be told how deadly they can be (seriously, don’t tell me, I remember Hurricane Katrina). However, as a mid-westerner in Tornado Alley, my envy goes beyond the opportunity to skip work and drink Boone’s Farm.

In Nebraska, our natural disasters come with only minutes of warning; they drop from the sky and spend a few lethal seconds on earth, before disappearing into the nothing from which they came. As we know from Joplin, tornadoes are a terror. In contrast, a big, slow moving hurricane, which we can follow from birth as well as any human child, seems almost benign. Thanks to technology, there are updates every day of hurricane season, telling us about a tropical depression that might turn into a tropical storm; of tropical storms that just got named; and of named tropical storms that evolved into hurricanes. These monsters are deadly, but they signal their arrival well in advance, giving people plenty of chance to flee.

Technology helps make us safe from hurricanes.

Technology also lulls us into a false sense of security. Knowing every detail about the composition of oncoming storms (or thinking the same), leads people to make critical judgments about whether they can ride things out. This is not always for the good. A little bit of knowledge, in untrained hands, can be deadly.

That, at least, is the point I took away from Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston Hurricane of September 8, 1900. The storm, the deadliest in American history, killed upwards of 6,000 people. It destroyed a city on the make, and hastened a shift in Texas municipal power from Galveston to Houston (a shift helped, of course, by oil). It was an event that, according to scientists such as meteorologist Isaac Cline, could never happen to Galveston.

Though built almost at sea level, the received wisdom at the turn of the century was that Galveston was safe. Meteorologists from the fledgling U.S. Weather Bureau calculated projected storm paths and concluded that hurricanes could not strike Galveston. Furthermore, there was a belief that the gradient of the beach would undercut the power of approaching waves. Accordingly, no seawall was built.

Isaac’s Storm tells the story of Isaac Cline, the man at the center of this folly, and of the horrible consequences that entailed when people got too comfortable in their certainty. In 1900, Cline was part of the new breed at the Weather Bureau, a nascent, criticized governmental agency that had been wracked by scandal and corruption. He was an ambitious, well-educated man (he graduated medical school in his spare time), and was sent to Galveston to clean up the local Bureau office. Cline did this. During his time there, he also came to believe that Galveston was impervious to hurricanes.

(The Bureau as a whole had a hurricane problem; due to bad press from faulty forecasts, meteorologists were warned to be skeptical about issuing hurricane warnings. As a result, Galveston was hammered by a storm that had passed unknown to Bureau men in Cuba).

The subtitle of Larson’s book is A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. Generally, I’m wary of books with the phrase “a Time” in the title. Simply put, that’s often editorial code for “this book contains plenty of filler.” Now, I’m not philosophically opposed to filler; as with everything in line, it depends on quality. However, I’ve found that filler typically runs the gamut: sometimes it’s homemade stuffing; sometimes it’s Stove Top; and sometimes it’s sawdust.

In Isaac’s Storm, there wouldn’t be a book without the filler. There’s not enough information on Isaac’s life for a full scale biography, and a storm by itself is not ample enough a subject for an entire book.

Here, the filler is the best stuff. I didn't care much for Isaac’s part of the story. The events of his life are sketchy (many of his papers were destroyed in the hurricane) and Larson has to rely heavily on Isaac’s memoir, which self-servingly makes him the hero of his own story.

On the other hand, the contextual aspects of the story – the 1900s in general, and Galveston in particular – are fascinating. The 1900s was a new era of hope, coming after the Gilded Age and the Panic of 1893. It was a time of industrialization and progress. There was electricity and automobiles; within three years the Wright Brothers would take off on a plane at Kitty Hawk. Less than a decade after Galveston, the keel for Titanic would be laid. Man truly believed he had conquered his environment. All this would end tragically in 1914, when Western Civilization collectively decided to commit suicide. Yet it’s fascinating to reenter that time, without the awful foreknowledge of how it’s going to end.

(It’s also a bit refreshing to revisit a period of history marked by rationality and scientific belief. Compared to 1900, we’ve regressed in many ways. Today, science is a competing theory, and local school boards get to decide whether our species evolved, or were created by an old guy with a flowing robe and a long white beard).

The attitude that marked the age, of course, also led to its great disasters. Galveston, much like Titanic, was guided to its fate by hubris. When it came to Galveston and its susceptibility to storms, many experts broke the first rule of punditry: always bet on disaster. If you’re right, everyone will call you a seer; if you’re wrong, no one will care, because you’re busy predicting another disaster.

Larson writes in a crisp, straightforward, journalistic style. It is an approach that does not lend itself to deeper insights into humanity, and the most well-developed character in Isaac’s Storm is the hurricane. Still, it is a style that holds your attention. You can read this straight through without your mind wandering in the slightest. The highest praise I can give is that the sections on the history of meteorology and the composition of hurricanes were among the best in the book. Larson is able to make prosaic experiments and scientific concepts understandable. Rather than falling asleep at the first mention of physics, I actually felt I learned something.

Larson also does a good job building tension. Throughout the book, he intercuts scenes from Isaac’s life to update you on the progress of the storm. Each time he checks back in, the storm has gotten closer and stronger, brushing past land masses and tossing about the ships at sea.

After such a deliberate, finely-tuned buildup, the climax simply sputters. Quite frankly, the hurricane’s landfall is the least interesting part of the book.

Larson does his best to make it visceral, with adjective filled sentences. The problem is that I didn't care about any of the people mentioned. They were just names, abstracted from humanity. My head knew they were people once, but my heart did not. As these names were swept away, one by one, I just couldn’t care. I’m not blaming Larson for this. He makes an attempt to humanize at least one family in Galveston. The problem, I suspect, is that there isn’t much of a historical record for him to comb.

The consequence, though, is a description of a storm that quickly becomes numbing and worse, mundane. It’s a list of people I didn't know, getting pulled away by the sea. This is not to say that there aren’t things that stick in your brain. For instance, there was the horrifying fate of 90 some children at the orphanage. The nuns had tied them together, so that no one would get separated, and that’s how their bodies were found, a string of small corpses. And of course there are the usual stories of miraculous survivals, families reunited, and lucky pets.

The book ends with a short, closing chapter, that follows Isaac (who lost his wife in the storm) through the rest of his career. Perhaps knowing that he’d failed the greatest task of his life (the one for which he’d trained many years), Isaac spent a great deal of time on self-serving writings in which he attempted to cast himself as a hero, roaming the beach and warning 6,000 people to leave (either the 6,000 people stayed and died, or they all had horrible memories, since there is no documented evidence that Isaac played the role of a maritime Paul Revere).

Isaac’s last posting with the Weather Bureau was in New Orleans, which at the time still had its illusions. He was dead long before Katrina came roaring out of the Gulf. In this last section, Larson also notes that, despite technological advances, the unpredictability and fury of hurricanes mean they are still deadly. Since this book was written in 1999, there is a tendency to divine some sort of prophecy in Larson’s warning. I don’t see it that way. Every book about a disaster is going to warn that greater disaster is looming. All of life tends toward doom, and no one ever missed a house payment by predicting that hell will eventually break loose.

I suppose the lasting image I’ll take from Isaac’s Storm isn’t the ferocity of the hurricane, but the hubristic certainty of Galveston before the flood. In my imagination, I can see it glittering on the beach, snug and smug and secure. It is a sunny day and kids are playing and laundry is snapping on the lines and mothers are cooking dinner and pot-bellied men in three-piece suits and starchy collars stand in clusters on street corners congratulating each other on their foresight. And just over the horizon is a hurricane.

I know I’m supposed to look back at those times and shake my head at those silly humans who thought they understood nature and the universe so well. But I didn’t. Instead, I felt a stirring of nostalgia for an era in which people dreamed big. Today’s world is ruled by cynics, those people who love to say “we can’t,” and then set out to prove it. With so much negativity, the heart almost craves the fast-talking, twinkle-eyed, forked-tongue huckster, promising happiness, prosperity, and a sea that won’t ever rise.
Profile Image for Michael Ferro.
Author 2 books214 followers
June 27, 2018
Erik Larson has the mind of a dedicated historian and the heart of a yarn-spinning storyteller. ISSAC'S STORM was everything I had hoped it would be, both scrupulously detailed and as enthralling as any Hollywood disaster blockbuster. It should come as no surprise really, as Larson has demonstrated himself as one of America's most unique and readable historians. Still, I can't help but to feel awed whenever I read a book about a 100-year-old storm that keeps me so on the edge of my seat.

Larson holds a magnifying glass over the heads of many of Galveston's real-life inhabitants, of both those who perished and those who survived, to create a real sense of tension in his book. While we become familiar with these people, the looming doom of the hurricane is never far off and when it finally hits, our nails are but nubs. Also brilliant is Larson's highly illuminating reportage of the times themselves, the hubris we, particularly as Americans, suffered from at the start of the 20th century—especially when it seemed so obvious that we knew so little of storms in reality (and still have so many questions about).

An incredible book and a must-read.
Profile Image for Murray.
Author 151 books549 followers
March 29, 2023
The suspense carries you at high speed

🌊 ⚡️ The feeling the book gives readers reminds me of the movie Valkyrie. You know the bomb plot won’t succeed, you know Hitler will survive, but you still think maybe maybe it will work out, and you’re filled with suspense.

🌊 So with this book. You know the storm will devastate Galveston, you know thousands will die, but you are still held in suspense, hoping for survivors.

🌊 Well-written, a page turner, painful - the excitement and the tragedy of the storm.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,821 reviews12.9k followers
May 13, 2022
A great fan of all things Erik Larson, I turned to this piece, which is slightly different from many of the other books the author has published. Rather than using history to tell of a dastardly criminal, the piece is all about a coming hurricane and how one man, Isaac Cline, sought to forewarn others. As the meteorological event advanced and eventually hit land in a Texas community, the destruction in its wake was like nothing ever seen in the US to that point. Larson offers a gripping description of events, painting the scene as few authors are able, without ‘drowning’ the reader in excessive minutiae. Well worth the time invested in this piece of non-fiction.

Isaac Cline loved his job with the US Weather Bureau. Serving as the resident meteorologist in Galveston, Texas, Cline surveyed the area for anything weather related and made sure those around him knew all about it. It was 1900, meaning that both tracing and reporting on any weather-related phenomena was still quite primitive, though the reader will likely be quite amazed at what they could do at the time. Cline noticed that weather disturbances as far away as the Caribbean and Florida would have some effect in Texas, though many others dismissed his claims as coincidence.

On the morning of September 8, 1900, the day began like any other. Then, Isaac Cline began to notice some odd readings and took note of deep-sea swells in Galveston. It was only later that his predictions of weather patterns from other parts of the Northern Hemisphere began to take shape. A full-blown hurricane was on its way to Galveston and the town was neither prepared, nor could a plan to save themselves be put in place. As winds rose and water pelted the seaside community, Cline and others could only watch the destruction mount, as they waited to see the after effects.

While six thousand people died, most unaware of what was taking place, the story has an ominous and personal angle for Isaac Cline, who suffered a tragedy all his own. While he was calling for help, his pleas fell on deaf ears, as no one could fathom that Cline’s predictions were rooted in possible truth. This is the story of those mounting concerns and how this hurricane helped shape the future of the US Wether Bureau and meteorological predictions for decades to come.

As with all of his books, Erik Larson dazzles the reader with the detail infused into the narrative, as well as the ease with which the story progresses. Larson uses a handful of first-hand accounts—telegrams, letters and field reports, as well as the testimony provided by those who survived the Galveston hurricane—to sketch out the timeline of events, as well as the advancing storm in ‘real-time’. Isaac Cline’s struggle is surely real and effectively presented by Larson in his easy to digest writing style, leaving the reader to feel as though they, too, are battling the winds and gales that September day in 1900. Providing not only the facts, but a personal narrative throughout, the reader can latch only all that Larson has to offer and this becomes much more than a piece of historical non-fiction, trying to inform the reader as to the goings-on in a personable context that permits a degree of empathy. This was another great read by Erik Larson and I will certainly be back for more soon!

Kudos, Mr. Larsen, for more stellar history storytelling. You find the greatest and most obscure stories to share with your fans!

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:
Profile Image for 'Aussie Rick'.
423 reviews215 followers
June 27, 2009
What a great story! This book just raced along full of facts and interesting detail about "a man, a time, and the deadliest hurricane in history." I must admit that when this book was first released in Australia I wasn't overly interested. It didn't sound like something that would interest me in the slightest.

How wrong can you be, after picking the book up for the third or fourth time and actually taking the time to see what the story was about I had to read it. The author, Erik Larson, presents a gripping and terrible account of the events leading up to the destruction on Galveston on the 8th of September 1900 by one of the deadliest hurricanes in America's history. Along the way the Larson provides details of man's efforts to predict and control the weather and the often-disastrous results when we got it wrong!

The personal accounts offered in this book are often very touching and the human drama really gets you involved in the story. The narrative moves along like an action paced novel and you find yourself up in the early hours of the morning glued to the pages. I really didn't want this story to finish, it was a great account and the only fault I could find was a lack of photographs. On a number of occasions Larson refers to old black and white photographs that he had seen during his research for this book, it would have been nice to share these with his audience. Overall this is a great book and well worth the time to read.

Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,783 reviews1,458 followers
January 4, 2021

This is a book focused on the science of weather. If that subject does not intersts you, do not rad this book. You must be interested in this science. It is a book of non-fiction; don't expect a book that will relate a harrowing tale of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston in September 1900. You will get that too, but first you must build up to the storm and understand the politics dictating the actions of the Weather Bureau. The scientific facts are mixed with engaging portrayals of the people in the city and with the fascinating characteristics of all hurricanes. I did not find the scientific data dry, but if you are allergic to such I would warn you, this is not primarily a dramatic horror about a devastating hurricane. You get scientific facts and politics too. I have warned you.

There is another central theme to this book, and it is related to the title - Isaac's Storm. This book is very much about how Isaac correctly and incorrectly predicted, advised others and was altered by the outcome of the storm. Where did he fail? What should he have done differently? Why did he make the choices he made? I am speaking of events both before and after the storm! He was under pressure. For this reason it is essential to understand what was happening in the life of the Weather Bureau in order to understand why perhaps Isaac made the errors he did and reacted as he did. This storm was very much Isaac's storm, he played a huge role in what happened. His life was changed both personally and professionally by this storm.


Through page 84: In the comments below this review there has arisen the question of whether Isaac sees himself as a hero or if it is the author that depicts him as a hero. I am paying attention to this question as I read the book. Numerous times I have noted that it is Isaac himself who is so very self-assured. I believe the author thinks differently. Look at this excerpt from page 79 about Isaac's view concerning a famous weather prophet, ProfessorAndrew Jackson DeVoe of Chattanooga, Tennessee:

It was the kind of prophecy Isaac Cline loathed. He was a scientist. He believed he understood weather in ways others did not. He did not know there was such a thing as the jet stream., or that easterly waves marched from the coast of West Africa every summer, or that a massive flow within the Atlantic Ocean ferried heat around the globe. Nor had he heard of a phenomenon called El Nino. But for his time he knew everything. Or thought he did.

I find that last sentence very telling of the author's point of view.

In fact the entire chapter, entitled "Galveston - An Absurd Delusion," points out the errors evident in Isaac's statements concerning the safety of Galveston! The author bases his views on written documents. It is quite clear that the author does not paint Isaac as a hero!


I have just begun. The excitement builds right from the start. I like the scientific acuracy mixed with the people's oh so normal responses. So far adults and children look up:

Men on the ground saw blossoms of cotton with flat gray bottoms that marked the altitude where condensation had begun. Children saw camels, rabbits, and canon fire...

Something powerful and ultimately deadly occurred wutrhin these clousd. As the water rose and cooled and condensed, it also released heat. In the sky over Africa 1900, trillions upon trillions of water molecules began breathing tiny fires . This heat propelled the air even higher into the atmosphere until the flatened to form
Cumulonimbuscapillatus incus. Incus meaning "anvil", the name too of an anvil-shaped bone in the human ear. There were thunderheads. "Convection." Higher up the strongest clouds penetrated the stratosphere. Soon an army of great thunderheads was marching west along the horizon, watched closely by the captains of British ships sailing down the African coast with troops for the Boer War. Seventy to eighty such waves drifted from West Africa into the Atlantic every summer, some dangerous, most not. The captains knew them less as weather, more as geography - something to watch to fill the long hours at sea. At dawn and dusk, the distant clouds warmed the sky with color. Rain smudged from their bottoms in fallstreaks. Frozen virga drifted from their glaciated tops. When the light was just right or a squall was near, the clouds formed an escarpment of black. Frigate birds sidelit by the sun drifted in the foreground and flecked the sky with diamond. (pages 22-23)

We, the readers, have been given the background so we understand what is hidden in the clouds up above. I like the writing because science, people's reactions, danger a nd beauty are all there in two successive paragraphs! The whole book so far is written in this maner.

I find it very intersting to read this book NOW. Both then and now the temperatures in the USA have been exceedingly high day after day after day. It is hard to ignore this similarity. But I am no weatherman.
Profile Image for Rachel.
63 reviews9 followers
November 30, 2008
Erik Larson delivers every time. He has the rare ability to take historical events and weave together yarns that in the end feel like you're reading a page-turning novel. In "Isaac's Storm" Larson takes us to a thriving seaside city in Texas circa 1900, to a time when people felt they could 'control' nature. He paints the story of how the infamous hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, on September 8th of that year devastated not just a whole community but also destroyed people's faith in man's ability to accurately predict the weather. "Isacc's Storm" blind-sided everyone -and what we learn is that there were in fact many dynamics at play that led to its terrible surprise - political, competitive, as well as scientific that ultimately failed the people of Galveston. There were amongst other things, no calls to evacuate. In fact, no one even knew that the oncoming storm was a hurricane, and in the end the death toll was over 8,000 - still to this day the highest death toll resultant of any of our country's natural disasters.

Not only does Larson take us back to this time and place and through the storm where we literally feel like we're in the 'eye' of the hurricane with its victims and survivors, but also in the end, in hindsight, it's a lesson in how storms, real and figurative, can blow through and sideswipe the most cautious and unassuming of any of us.
It's a reminder of how the unexpected is always upon us.
The amount of detail and research and accuracy of depiction to this story in and of itself make it worth the read. Highly recommended!
Profile Image for Lori  Keeton.
487 reviews122 followers
October 29, 2021
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a short trip down to Galveston for the first time and just rest and relax by the beach in the Gulf of Mexico. What a nice trip with wonderful friends that turned into a history lesson I’d never known about until then. The major hurricane destruction of the city in September 1900 is stamped all over the city. You can read signs proudly announcing this building or that location survived the great event. It seemed pretty poignant to be walking the same street, the Strand, and viewing the same ocean that became the sight of so much destruction and loss of life on that fateful day.

Erik Larson’s Issac’s Storm is a compelling account of not just the hurricane and the weather forecaster in charge of Galveston but of various historical and political tie-ins of the time. Larson’s research reveals much of the history of what people knew about hurricanes and storms of this magnitude at this time going all the way back to Columbus and Galileo. Having established this background, Larson takes a political look at the Weather Bureau and the struggle it was trying to get out of at the turn of the century. Many different bureaucratic discrepancies and outright not working together with other countries, namely Cuba, which may have been been a direct cause of why this disastrous storm was not warned of ahead of time.

Once you get through the first third of the book, then Isaac’s story and the story of the hurricane comes to life. Larson personalizes the non-fiction account with stories of the many people and families living in Galveston. Before this hurricane came through and destroyed the city, Galveston was considered the Manhattan of the South. The lovely owner of the used book store in Galveston proudly exclaimed this to me and how in the Victorian period the city was a wealthy and important cotton port. Larson claims …Galveston in 1900 stood on the verge of greatness. If things continued as they were, Galveston soon would achieve the stature of New Orleans, Baltimore, or San Francisco. The New York Herald had already dubbed the city the New York of the Gulf..
Galveston was a city that had grown 30 percent in only ten years. They were competing against Houston to be the greatest city on the coast of Texas because there could only be one. This was a city with high hopes and dreams and potential. But sadly, men at this time didn’t really know enough about the potential for destruction or even that a storm like this could ever hit Texas, for that matter. If only they’d known more then…

Many years later he [Isaac] would write, “If we had known then what we know now of these swells, and the tides they create, we would have known earlier the terrors of the storm which these swells…told us in unerring language was coming.>
Profile Image for Lobstergirl.
1,750 reviews1,268 followers
January 30, 2010
It's probably more than a little shameful to admit it post-Katrina, but weather porn can be deeply satisfying. Hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, tsunamis, mudslides, styrofoam impaling oak trees, low pressure troughs, the Beaufort scale - don't you feel a little tingly already? When we combine weather porn with the romance of a good story, we get Sebastian Junger and The Perfect Storm: the perfect balance between good science and great storytelling, weaving characters, lives, rescue efforts, and the molecules of the air and the ocean into a seamless tale, juxtaposing the calm detachment of scientific description with the heart-pounding trauma of danger and death.

I was hoping for more of the same with Isaac's Storm, but it was not to be. In 1900 the low-lying barrier island of Galveston, Texas was hit head-on by a massive hurricane -- in fact, by two almost simultaneous storm surges, one from the Gulf of Mexico and one from the bay behind Galveston -- that wiped out a good portion of the city and killed between 6,000 and 10,000 men, women and children, and hundreds of horses and cows and other animals.

Erik Larson, the author, chooses to examine the disaster through the eyes of the local Weather Bureau head, Isaac Cline. From a weather porn standpoint, this was not a good choice. It's clear that Larson focuses on Isaac Cline so that he can examine the issues of hubris and human flaws: Isaac's own hubris in failing to predict the storm, and the hubris of the newly modern science of weather and climate prediction. (In fact, the Weather Bureau in Cuba did forecast the hurricane, but it continued on to the Florida coast, and Isaac was blinded by his overconfident pronouncements years earlier that a hurricane could not travel west across the Gulf from Florida.) But Isaac didn't leave very much personal material for the historical record (the main source is his 1945 memoir), and what archival material exists on him is exceedingly dry; thus we are subjected to pages and pages of tedious description of Isaac's early career in the Signal Corps at Fort Myer.

Perhaps to compensate for the aridity of his source material, Larson waxes verbosely in little weather-related asides, as in this poem to the atmosphere of Cameroon:

The air contained water: haze, steam, vapor; the stench of day-old kill and the greetings of men glad to awaken from the cool mystery of night...An invisible paisley of plumes and counterplumes formed above the earth, the pattern as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey.

Larson tries very hard to play up the rivalry between Isaac and his younger brother Joseph, who also worked in the Galveston Weather Bureau, describing in detail their disagreements over the storm, their estrangement, the way Joseph never mentions Isaac by name in his autobiography. Since I didn't care about Isaac, I found this story line less than compelling too.

Larson might have redeemed himself with vivid descriptions of the storm hitting Galveston -- which he does, to a degree. But his narrative becomes confusing since he is trying to follow so many separate families and individuals, as well as travel back and forth through time, from early evening to nightfall to morning. The water is knee-high at one time and location, waist high at another, neck high at another -- is the water ebbing and flowing, or are we travelling back in time, or is it that the water is higher in one person's house because it is low-lying? I didn't know, and eventually I didn't care. I could have read 700 more pages of The Perfect Storm, but Isaac's Storm at 280 seemed about 200 pages too bloated.

The storytelling is also hindered by the absence of photographs. We know they exist, because Larson mentions them, but why weren't they included? Given the tedium of the narrative, they would have provided a welcome distraction.

A final point of irritation is Larson's habit of filling in the gaps where the historical record is incomplete. Junger was faced with the problem of having to create a narrative where none existed, since there were no witnesses or survivors to the sinking of the Andrea Gail. He painted a vivid picture of what the men's last hours and moments must have been like, based on readings and measurements from the closest water buoys, and other scientific data. Larson, on the other hand, has all the important historical verification he needs but chooses to embellish the details anyway: Isaac must have gone to this bath house since it was near his house, and must have read books like these. Venomous snakes must have spiralled up into the trees as the floodwaters rose, because we know this happened in later hurricanes. One source cites one name for an orphanage survivor, another source cites another; Larson picks one arbitrarily. Isaac must have checked all the hospitals and morgues looking for his wife, based on the fact that this is what scores of other people were doing, even though what he actually did in the days immediately following the storm is a complete mystery. Isaac must have had happy, blissful dreams, only to awaken to gloom and grief, because Freud's 1900 Interpretation of Dreams states that every dream is a wish fulfillment, and "what survivor of a tragedy has never dreamed that the outcome had been different?"

It's one thing to suggest that something may have happened in such a way because the preponderance of historical evidence suggests so, as long as you're merely suggesting. To assert something as fact that you don't know is anti-historical. It's not that different from fiction. Larson's modus operandi is to state something as if it were fact in the text, and then to explain in the endnotes that it's not really fact.

For example, when Isaac finally finds his wife's body, Larson writes, "Isaac kept [her wedding ring:], had it enlarged, and wore it himself. It was this ring that gleamed like a beacon from his photographic portrait. He wore it also on December 31, 1900, when Galveston prepared to enter the twentieth century." If you bother to read the endnotes, Larson confesses, "Isaac nowhere states this. It is conjecture, purely, but I base it on...Isaac's essentially romantic character; his devotion to Cora; his deep knowledge of portraiture and the symbolic messages embedded within by their painters..."

In the end, I was left wondering how a story about so much water could be so dry.
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews121 followers
September 7, 2018
Here's a tragedy that could not have been completely avoided, but due to man's folly became much worse than it should have been. The U.S. Weather Service in September of 1900 ignored most reports of a severe hurricane brewing in the Caribbean. Drawing on a great deal of denial and no small amount of racism, the Americans condemned Cuban forecasts (which were also understated, but not nearly so heinously) as "emotional," avoiding almost as a matter of faith "poetic" terms like "eye" (of the storm) or even "Hurricane." The storm hit Galveston, Texas, dead-on, wiping out a third of the structures of the city and an estimated 8,000 residents. While land-based telegraphy was advanced as to transmission of data, it bears remembering that radio-telegraphy still lay in the near future. As much as possible of the narrative is told through the eyes of Isaac Cline, chief of the Galveston weather bureau.

As always, Erik Larson writes beautifully, at times brilliantly, and bases his non-fiction on vast and impeccable sources. This is a wonderful book to read (though Texans who lived through the similar Harvey in 2017 may want to wait a while before picking up ISAAC'S STORM). I do wish that visuals in this book had included more than a very basic map of the Gulf of Mexico and adjoining landmass, and a map of Galveston. I always find it frustrating when Larson describes the looks of people and buildings with such details and eloquence, yet no photos or drawings wind up in the book.

Take-with: superior technology means nothing without superior methodology and information-gathering.
Profile Image for Missy.
564 reviews28 followers
May 25, 2022
Month of May 2022: Local History

The first half of the book is interesting if you like learning all about how hurricanes form and where they come from. Not me! But, the author drops in bits and pieces of Isaac Clines life, so makes it worth reading through. The last half of the book is riveting! It follows families through their survival, or deaths.

In 1900, Galveston, the same today, is a long, narrow island, but it’s highest point was 8.7 feet above sea level on Broadway. Its average altitude was only half that at around 5 feet. So, with each one foot increase in tide, the city would lose a thousand feet in beach. (p. 12)

Today, not only has Galveston built a 17‘ tall by 27’ wide granite wall three miles long, but the city itself was filled and raised to nearly the height of the wall, sloping it downward to eight feet above sea level on the north end to allow any water that went over the top of the wall to drain into the bay on the north side. Over 2,000 buildings and houses, even a cathedral (using upwards of 500 jacks or more), had to be lifted to allow sand to be pumped in underneath them. It took seven years to complete after the 1900 Galveston storm and was first tested in 1915 when another storm just as bad hit the island again. But this time, there were only eight deaths.

Isaac Cline lived at 1125 Avenue Q, three blocks from the beach in downtown Galveston and had the largest and considered one of the most solid homes built around. Originally from Monroe County, Tennessee, he arrived in Galveston in 1891 to open and operate the first U.S Weather Bureau in Texas.

They knew a tropical storm was coming. They were living in an era when they were just learning about predicting severe weather. But, politics got in the way. Even back then, they had to quit using words like “tornado”, “hurricane” or “cyclone” because it instilled fear and panic in people. This tropical storm had just gone through Cuba and was gaining strength. But, headquarters, Willis Moore, specifically, made it clear, Cline was not to issue storm warnings on his own. The U.S. Weather Bureau were the only ones who could issue warnings, using those key words.

Although, this era of meteorologists were just beginning to learn about these storms, Isaac still had a false belief that nothing too serious could ever happen to Galveston.

U.S. Weather Service was in constant conflict and competition with the meteorologists at Belen College Observatory in Cuba. The U.S. even banned weather transmissions to Cuba during the height of hurricane season. When this storm went over Cuba they reported to U.S. and to their people that they were center of the low pressure of a “hurricane”. Cubans used the color of the sky, along with the wind, waves, temperature and barometric pressure to determine how severe the storms would be. The U.S. laughed and still believed it was just a large tropical storm and would follow through Key West and head up the east coast. But, an abnormal high pressure zone kept the storm heading west, with southern Florida barely getting touched, and into the Gulf, barreling straight for Texas. Even the day before the storm hit the Galveston coast, the U.S. believed it a nonessential shoot-off tropical storm from the one that went over Cuba and which had supposedly dissipated. But, Issac Cline was concerned because of the unusual high tides and large waves…but no winds. The barometer pressure had even gone up, not down as it normally would with an approaching storm. So, there was that confusion!

Even as the storm approached shore and was bringing in flood waters by 7:00am that morning, children thought it exciting and were out playing in the first 2-1/2 feet of flood waters with homemade rafts. By 1:15pm, the wind was 35 mph and water was at least waist deep at the Santa Fe Union depot where a train had just arrived from across Galveston Bay to drop off a load of people. A train from Beaumont made it to Bolivar Island lighthouse early on the morning as the hurricane was hitting land, where 9 of its 83 passengers, including the train master left the train and took refuge inside the lighthouse with 200 other people. The train appeared to be moving through the storm, then disappeared. Everyone who stayed on the train died. Locked up inside the lighthouse with waves breaking higher than the light, they could hear soldiers sounding off their cannons for help just across the bay.

The eye of the storm ended up passing just west of Galveston, which brought the worst devastation to Galveston, being on the east side of the eye of the hurricane…stronger winds and higher surge. It was estimated that winds were over 150 mph and tidal surge was well over 15 feet, recorded by Isaac Cline, and most likely up to 30 feet.

At a Dr. Young’s home, which his home did not survive, his upstairs was 32 feet high off the ground, and it flooded all the way to the top of the steps. But, it doesn’t let us know how high his land was above sea level. But, he only lived two blocks from Isaac Cline, and closer to the beach.

As wind shifted at 5:40pm, coming from the east now, the worse side of the hurricane was passing over Galveston, bringing even higher winds over 150 mph and the Gulf waters.

Judson Palmer, wife Mae, son Lee were standing on edge of their bathtub on the second story when their house shifted and settled into deeper water. It was torn apart. Judson was the only one to surface.

Cline was standing at his front door, at 25th and Q, watching the water torrent flow east to west, while his younger brother Joseph tried to encourage him and others to leave the house, when suddenly the water rose 4 feet in 4 seconds. That was at 6:30pm. His yard was 5.2 feet above sea level. The water was 10 feet above ground, which means the tide was 15.2 feet deep and rising. The house was filled with refugees, 50 people, including his pregnant wife who was in bed and his three children, taking cover and water was suddenly waist deep. They all moved to the second story. Suddenly the house began shifting, and as it began falling over, Joseph grabbed the hands of two of Isaac’s children and busted through a window that was now the top of the house. Isaac, and miraculously his youngest daughter, age 6, his sweetheart, and 18 others made it out of the completely flooded house.

St. Mary’s Orphanage was located where present-day Walmart is today, near the center of Galveston Island. There were 10 sisters who ran the orphanage, which had, at the time, 93 orphans. They tied eight children with ropes around their waist to each of them, leaving three of the oldest untied. Those three were the only ones to survive. (p. 212-13)

It was interesting to learn how weather was being predicted in the 1900’s. There were men stationed at weather stations throughout the U.S. and Canada. They would record their readings (barometric pressures, temperatures, types of clouds, wind, etc..) throughout the day and send them by Western Union to the main office in Washington. It took on average, about an hour for messages to get back and forth from Galveston to Washington. There they created weather maps daily that were sent back out to every weather station and newspapers that had a vested interest in weather reports.

Keep your eyes on the barometer, which will fall when a storm is approaching. A normal barometer reading is 30 inches. The lowest recorded to-date was 26.22, in the eye of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988. The 1900 hurricane that hit Galveston was “officially” recorded by the U.S. Weather Station at 28.48. But, at the train station, someone noted the pressure at 27.50.

Four months later, on January 10, 1901, oil was struck right here in Beaumont, Texas, at the Spindletop. This event would literally rock the world and change the landscape of Southeast Texas. Galveston may have been one of the top three growing cities and ports in the U.S. before the hurricane, but the railroads were safer from Houston. So, Houston profited from the great oil boom and moved ahead of Galveston as a major port of transportation. Galveston became just the beach getaway vacation site that it continues to be today.

Author used Isaac’s own memoir, “Storms, Floods and Sunshine” (1945) for his insights into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He poured through the records of the U.S. Weather Bureau archives and Clara Barton’s papers at the Library of Congress. And, of course, Galveston’s Rosenberg Library holds all the hundreds of personal letters, newspaper articles, notes and over 4,000 photographs on the hurricane from survivors.

A few houses and buildings listed below that, although survived the 1900 hurricane and were raised, the people were not mentioned in the book. They are at least worth a drive-by tour. Galveston does offer organized historic homes tours, at certain times of the year, inside a few of these homes, and other homes built just after the flood, but they are never any fun for us. We like doing our own thing at our own pace.

Isadore Lovenberg House in the East End Historic District, built in 1877

Note: Not a part of the historic tour homes, but was up for sale in 2021.


Allan & Lulu Cameron home, built in 1891
1126 Church Street


August Roemer Tenant House, built in 1873
1416 Sealy Street

- Roemer sold the one-and-one-half-story house in 1879 to Julius and Elizabeth Ruhl, who were most likely living here in 1900.


James and Amelia Byrnes House, built c. 1881
2113 Ball Street

Note: Byrnes is photo below Lucas Terrace photo.


Conrad and Henrike Lenz House, built 1887
1807 Avenue L

Note: Scroll to photo of inside of home at 1807 Avenue L in description.

Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,397 reviews584 followers
August 12, 2016
This book details the 1900 Galveston Hurricane disaster. But it does so through the life biography of Issac Cline. He was instrumental for weather prediction and some aspects of governmental weather authority connections.

Having had the Kindle read before, I finished this go around with the hardcover. I was a bit disappointed that it had some excellent charts and maps but absolutely no photographs.

Larson does these non-fiction accounts well. This was not my favorite, but it sure puts you exactly within that time, place, cognition of what was happening, and all the associative materials about the then current belief system upon the strength, occasion, or worst possibilities for any TX coast hurricane having a devastating outcome. They were certainly wrong upon more than just the certainty of minute by minute changes in gulf/ocean levels.

What really increased the star rating of this work, was the historic background (even to the days of Columbus's hurricane on his 4th voyage) and also the describing of the properties of "swells" predictions.

So many individual family's stories and most highly tragic. Just 2 or 3 blocks apart in dwelling, but what different outcomes!

Having to admit I love living close to water- give me an inland lovely lake any time. Not that it is always gentle- but water weight moving on the ocean's scale even within short time periods is human structure failure. Either sooner or later.
Profile Image for Diane in Australia.
668 reviews790 followers
June 24, 2018
Fantastic book. As always, Erik Larson does a superb job with this true story about the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas USA in 1900, and killed over 6000 people. Isaac Cline is employed by the national Weather Bureau in Galveston, and the book shows just how he helped, and hindered, the handling of the storm. You'll get an intimate look at the science of weather, political maneuverings in various departments, and an hour-by-hour record of the events which happened to the folks who lived, or died, on that day.

If you like history brought back to life, you'll love this book.

4 Stars = It touched my heart, and/or gave me much food for thought.
Profile Image for Checkman.
517 reviews75 followers
February 10, 2023
Popular history with just enough science thrown in to explain what happened without causing the reader to go cross-eyed. Fast moving and engrossing in the tradition of the best suspense/disaster fiction only the 1900 Galveston Hurricane was real. Somewhere between 6,000-8,0000 people lost their lives and the city of Galveston, Texas sustained a body blow that derailed its ambitions of becoming one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the United States. It's now a moderate sized city that relies on tourism and the insurance industry (historical irony I believe) for its economic well-being. It was long ago passed up by its business rival Houston. The 1900 hurricane played a large part in that and "Isaac's Storm" details what happened on September 8. 1900.

The book is gripping. Sucks you in and keeps you reading. I was pleasantly surprised that it was so engrossing (often I find this type of pop history to be a bit lacking) and kept turning the pages. I only put it down when I had to. Not a long read it feels like a very well-done in-depth article for a monthly periodical.

Now for a couple weak points. The book cried out for photos. Thankfully the Internet provides not only photos but even a couple short movies of the clean-up that were made by Edison's people. In addition, there are individuals in the book that show up once or twice and then never returned to. In particular I kept waiting to come back to Rabbi Cohen and his family, but we never see them again after pages 155-158 (paperback edition)

Once again, thanks to the Internet, and several Texas based historical societies, I was able to learn what happened to the Cohen family (they all survived and prospered) as well as many others mentioned in passing. The book is short, and thousands were affected, and I understand that not everyone can be covered in-depth. The main focus in on Isaac Cline and his family, but to have the reader follow the Cohen family for three pages and then to never mention them again is something of a mistake. In my humble opinion.

Well regardless of those quibbles "Isaac's Storm" is very well written. Give it a try. I live in Idaho so hurricanes aren't really a problem, but it would make a nice read if you're at the beach during a garden-variety tropical storm. Just enough to make you stop and listen when a particularly powerful gust of wind rocks the walls.
Profile Image for Lorna.
721 reviews420 followers
March 24, 2019
Isaac's Storm: A Man, A Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History by Erik Larson was a stunning and riveting account of the hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas in 1900, causing untold devastation, destruction and death in its wake. Isaac Cline, one of the new era's scientists, was part of a sweeping confidence in America in the beginning of the twentieth century that may have caused many warnings to be ignored. Larson's extensive research gives one an in-depth look of all that was occurring, in gripping detail, as the deadly hurricane approached. There is a lesson in this tragedy for us all.

"The swells came very slowly, at intervals of one to five minutes."

"Many years later he would write, 'If we had known then what we know now of those swells, and the tides they create, we would have known earlier the terrors of the storm which these swells. . . .told us in unerring language was coming.'"

"Far out to sea, one hundred miles from where Isaac stood, Capt. J.W. Simmons, master of the steamship Pensacola, prayed softly to himself as horizontal spheres of rain exploded against the bridge with such force they luminesced in a billion pinpoints of light, like fireworks in a green-black sky."

"Within the next twenty-four hours, eight thousand men, women and children in the city of Galveston would lose their lives. The city itself would lose its future. Isaac would suffer an unbearable loss. And he would wonder always if some of the blame did not belong to him."

"The Cubans took a more romantic view, a psychoanalytic approach, that was the product of the island's long and tragic experience. Nearly every Cuban alive had experienced at least one major hurricane."
Profile Image for Jim.
576 reviews88 followers
June 27, 2019
3.5 *

At the dawn of the twentieth century American's reveled in new discoveries, new technologies, mastery over everything. Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist at the Galveston, Texas office of the U.S. Weather Bureau, was a man of science and believed no storm could do serious harm to the city of Galveston, a growing city destined for a great future. In September 1900 this cultural hubris proved deadly.

In the summer of 1900 odd things were happening. A heat wave gripped large parts of the United States. The Bering Glacier began to shrink. A plague of crickets engulfed Waco. In Cuba local weathermen noticed and worried about the signs they spotted. They had pioneered hurricane science. America's Weather Bureau had an obsession with controlling hurricane forecasts. The word hurricane could not even be used without permission from the highest levels in the Weather Bureau. The Cuban's were natives. Aboriginals. They could not be believed. The Weather Bureau had science and technology. The Cuban's predicted a hurricane and that it was headed for Texas. The Weather Bureau predicted a storm that would head out to the Atlantic.

In Galveston on the night of September 7, 1900 Isaac Cline notices the approaching storm and begins to feel uneasy. Still no one panics. Storms are nothing new to Galveston. Even as the storm hits the city children are playing in the rain. Adults sit on wicker chairs and watch the storm. Storms were a form of entertainment. Until it was too late. This was a tragic tale. The lost of life is unknown. It may have been at least 6,000 and it may have been as high as 10,000. Entire families. Woman, children, babies. Whether a person lived or died seems to be a matter of fate. Do you stay in your home? Do you try and evacuate? There was no right choice. After the storm passed the horrors continued. Large parts of the city were destroyed. Entire buildings and homes were gone. Thousands of corpses had to be dealt with.

The human side of the story was fascinating. It was horrible and tragic but it is the real story. Often times, especially early in the story, the author spends a great deal of time explaining the science of weather, hurricanes, cyclones, wind, etc. This dragged my rating down from 4 stars to 3.5. To me when he got into the science it was somewhat tedious reading but the stories of the people were what made this story. And raised the question could it happen again? Do we depend too much on technology?
Profile Image for Marialyce (on our way to Venice).
2,038 reviews709 followers
September 12, 2011
After suffering the effects of hurricane Irene, I thought this would be a good book to really find out how devastating a hurricane could be. I so enjoyed reading of the way in which the weather bureau of 1900 and earlier was filled with corruption and a sense that what they thought was the only right thought. I guess not much politically has changed and yet with all out modern advances, we still have such a time getting the weather right.

Isaac Cline, the meteorologist for the Galveston area put up with the bureaucracy of the governmental agency. Thinking that weather could be predicted was a new notion at the time but one that the agency thought was humanly possible. However, as often as not, nature can't be predicted and the worst storm ever bringing with it the worst natural disaster ever occurred on September 8, 1900. The storm, stating in Cuba crossed into Florida and then headed straight for Galveston., adding energy as it traveled and a hugh wall of water. The storm slammed into Galveston wiping out most structures and causing the death of at least 10,000 people. This storm is still the worst ever natural disaster experienced in the U.S.

This was such an interesting book in which Larson was able to recreate the path of the storm and its aftermath. It was also a story of the loss of life caused by this killer hurricane. One can't trust the powers of nature for they can often turn and produce horrible results for people and their towns and cities.
Profile Image for Ms.pegasus.
723 reviews141 followers
November 20, 2017
1900 was a time when passenger pigeons still darkened the sky, and bathing suits were made of mohair. The Spanish-American War had been waged the previous year. Galveston was a booming seaport riding high on a surge of (to the modern eye) precarious optimism. With these, and many more details, Larson immerses the reader in a zeitgeist ripe for natural catastrophe. There was a burgeoning faith in technology. The U.S. Weather Service, then part of the War Department, was like an adolescent, its expansive confidence masking both inexperience and insecurities. Larson draws on elements of history, science, and human interest to tell the story of the devastating hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900 and killed between 6000 and 8000 people. His story is riveting.

He builds suspense through journal like entries marking the storm's progress from it's birth in the Atlantic Ocean to its first sighting as a typical tropical squall on August 27 to warnings of an unusual incipient cyclone from the Belen Observatory in Cuba on September 1. Although tropical storm and hurricane warnings were of vital importance to Cuba, and, since 1870, a detailed communication network had been set up on the island, the head of the U.S. Weather service, Willis Moore and his representative in Cuba, William Stockman, were both dismissive of the Cubans. Part of this was prejudice; their correspondence depicted the Cubans as panic-prone natives. Part of their attitude was due to insecurity. Moore was obsessed with centralized control. He did not want the Cubans issuing independent weather bulletins. He had a paranoid fear that the Cubans would steal U.S. Weather Service data and claim independent expertise. The U.S. Government owned all telegraph lines in Cuba. Moore was able to get the War Department to ban all cables about the weather from Cuba except for those issued by the U.S. Weather Service. As a result, the Belen Observatory's concerns went unheeded. And, of course, ego was a prominent factor.

Forecasting relied largely on the discernment of patterns, not scientific hypothesis and testing. One misleading pattern was that tropical storms usually veered north northeast into the Atlantic. Exceptions were conveniently termed accidents of nature. Three days before the hurricane struck, the weather service was predicting that the storm would proceed up the Atlantic coast the next day. The Cubans at Belen had already anticipated that the path would instead lead to the Texas coast.

A second misleading conception was that the long low coastal shelf of Galveston Island would mute the effects of tidal flooding. In 1876 Henry Blanford had studied the lethal storm surges in the Bay of Bengal and concluded that such a geographical configuration promoted the volume and height that defined these devastating tidal waves. Unfortunately, that theme was not reiterated until a month after the hurricane in the weather bureau's monthly publication.

Bureaucracy was another contributing factor in the failure to anticipate the hurricane. Data was submitted to the central office in Washington D.C. Assessments were made centrally and bulletins issued each morning. Because of the top down communication flow, a Galveston weather service employee was advising as late as the morning of September 8 that the storm conditions were an “offspur” of the Florida storm reported earlier in the week.

Larson's saga turns into a horror story as he focuses on individual families. Houses crumple, slate shingles fly through the air, families are divided and drowned. The horror continues into the aftermath as the first outsiders venture into the area to investigate the mysterious silencing of all communications coming out of Galveston. His documentation for these events are drawn from an extensive trove of archival material: Letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, cables, and newspaper accounts.

Larson is at his most lyrical when he delves into the elemental nature of the weather. “It began, as all things must, with an awakening of molecules. The sun rose over the African highlands east of Cameroon and warmed grasslands, forests, lakes, and rivers, and the men and creatures that moved and breathed among them; it warmed their exhalations and caused these to rise upward as a great plume of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, the earth's soul....Winds converged. A big, hot easterly raced around a heat-induced low in the Sahara, where temperatures averaged 113 degrees Fahrenheit, heat scalded the air, and winds filled the sky with dust. This easterly blew toward the moist and far cooler bulge of West Africa. High over the lush lands north of the Gulf of Guinea, over Ouagadougou, Zungeru, and Yamoussoukro, this thermal stream encountered moist monsoon air blowing in from the sea from the southwest. The monsoon crossed the point where zero latitude and zero longitude meet, and entered the continent over Nigeria Where these winds collided, they produced a zone of instability. The air began to undulate.” (p.19-20) The dance of moisture and wind is mesmerizing. You will never think about the weather in the same way again!

It is a sobering thought that even today, with all of our measurements and satellite tracking, there is much to be learned about hurricanes. Larson even invokes chaos theory as a reminder that prediction may not even be an attainable goal.
Profile Image for Steven Peterson.
Author 19 books281 followers
February 6, 2010
I have read a couple of Erik Larson's books over the past couple years, "Thunderstruck" and "The Devil in the White City." I was riveted by both books, finding them very powerful indeed. In response to a review of one of these book's someone suggested that I read "Isaac's Storm." I took up that suggestion, and see this as one part of the Tri-fecta of Larson's works.

This is, on its face. the story of the horrific Galveston hurricane in 1900, when thousands perished. Other of Larson's books focus on one or a handful of key actors to provide perspective. Here, the focal figure is Isaac Cline, the meteorologist with the weather service who worked in the Galveston office at the time of the hurricane. It is also the story of a bureaucracy, the weather service, and its perspectives that were sometimes dysfunctional (e.g., contempt for Cuban meteorologists and efforts to downplay the possibility of hurricanes occurring). There is a lot of biographical information in Cline and his family, perhaps too much so for forward momentum. But the emphasis on him as a person provides a context for his role at Galveston.

This was in an era when hurricanes were not understood well--or, if understood, understood wrongly. For instance, it was held to be extremely unlikely that a storm could track due west from Cuba without bending to the north before striking the Texas coast. The heart of the book is the set of subtle--not understood--indicators that a storm was barreling toward Galveston. There are vignettes about a number of families as they went about their business as the killer hurricane bore down on them. These vignettes provide a very human element to the book.

The detail provided as the storm strikes Galveston makes the awful impact understandable. The horror of the hurricane is well told. At the close of the book, we learn of the fates of a number of the key characters in the tale, as told by Larson.

In short, another fine work by Larson. I'm not sure that it is quite as good as the other two volumes mentioned at the outset, but if you are interested in the Galveston hurricane, this is an accessible introduction to the subject.
Profile Image for Deb (Readerbuzz) Nance.
5,873 reviews292 followers
June 22, 2023
It was Isaac Cline, the chief weatherman in Texas, who fervently denied the belief that a major hurricane could ever hit Galveston. He denied it as a storm formed in the Atlantic. He denied it as the storm moved through Cuba. He denied it as ships in the Gulf fought their way through the storm. He denied it hours before the storm began to make its presence known in Galveston, and he even denied it as the storm blew down his house, took the lives of his wife and unborn child, destroyed most of the city, killed what is believed to be over 10,000 people.

Isaac was wrong.

The Great 1900 Storm is considered to be one of the worst hurricanes to ever hit the United States.

Isaac's Storm is the story of an amazing city, a city with a massive amount of new development, a port city that seemed destined to become the biggest in Texas, a city filled with rich and ambitious people, a city ruined by the arrival of a tremendous and unexpected storm one day in September of 1900.

The stories author Erik Larson shares in this book, stories of death and destruction, are horrifying. I drive along the seventeen-foot seawall in Galveston, built after the storm in the hope that all could say never-again. I think about the orphanage and the lives lost there as I pass the place where Wal-Mart stands today. I drive down P 1/2 and 25th and think about Isaac's home which once stood, knocked down by the force of the storm, his wife lost. I see the Galvez Hotel, built after the storm, boldly outside the reach of the seawall, almost daring a storm to strike. I think about Galveston, as it was before the storm, as it was during the storm, and what it is like now, 123 years after the storm.

And I wonder when the next Great Storm will hit.
Profile Image for Deacon Tom F.
1,864 reviews146 followers
November 7, 2020

I Loved this Real-Life Tragedy!

In Isaac's Storm Erik Larson wove the chapters, with exceptional footnotes and precise research. The book has rapid pacing that builds to the ferocity of the hurricane if September of 1900 that laid waste to Galveston, Texas. Showing a timeline of the hurricane, the controversial beginning and finally the course taken to unprotected Galveston.

Within the book, Larson tells of beginning of the US Weather Bureau, including the politics holding back the meteorologists. Larson tells the background stories, all peppered with anecdotes. These details turned a non-fiction book into a real page-turner.

The book focuses on Isaac Cline the meteorologist who the book is named after. Cline's tasks are complicated and throughout we are left to judge his strengths and weaknesses. When the hurricane finally hits, the author relates the incredible horror, death, and loss. Larson supports up his story with an incredible amount of detailed research and footnotes.

I was attracted to the book because of the many hurricanes of 2020. I had little knowledge of this killer hurricane. Larson walked us through the entire tragedy

I highly recommend this novel
Profile Image for Alisa.
399 reviews69 followers
January 20, 2020
When a force of nature collides with man's limited knowledge and hubris of believing otherwise, terrible things happen. Larson tells a great story of this horrendous hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas in 1900. The thread of the story about the then developing Weather Bureau and the limited tools they had to work with was interesting and I found it fascinating that they had developed an elaborate system for coalescing bits of information and distributing it daily to primarily to sea merchants and farmers. Even though so little was known, they at least had a way to distribute information. This hurricane walloped Galveston. There is no escaping the forces of nature. You have to wonder how much more could have been done had they not ignored the warning bell sounded by Cuba, and taken it seriously. Fascinating story, heartbreaking loss.
Profile Image for Anne ✨ Finds Joy.
282 reviews67 followers
July 1, 2019
Well, this was ok, but I didn't find it as engaging as Larson's Dead Wake story. The lengthy history on hurricanes and weather reporting was a bit dry, and the characters within this story weren't all that engaging. The relating of the disaster itself was very good though, and I learned a lot, not previously realizing the scope of lives lost and destruction in its path.
Profile Image for Paul Falk.
Author 9 books128 followers
July 11, 2017
The author had consumed mountains of research to produce this emotionally charged historical nonfictional account of the hurricane to end all hurricanes that consumed the city of Galveston, Texas. This had been and still remains today the most horrific loss of life due to a catastrophic event in the United States with an estimated death toll estimated at 8000. I had been dutifully reminded and ever more respectful that we are always at the mercy of Mother Nature.

On September 8, 1900, Isaac Cline was Galveston's meteorologist on the day of the worst hurricane disaster to strike in American history. The telltale signs had been there. Yet he and other notable experts in the field such as his boss Willis Moore, Chief U.S. Weather Bureau ignored first warnings from hurricaneologists in Cuba that a tropical cyclone was likely headed in their direction - Galveston. Failure to act expeditiously was owed by the American counterparts. At that time, they had felt that the Cubans did not possess an adequate level of academic training in meteorology comparable with those in America. An air of smugness and arrogance was directed at the imposters to the South. This unfortunate circumstance turned out to be their own undoing. Instead, relying mostly on guesswork, they supported the notion that the hurricane was headed up the Eastern seaboard. That's where they "usually" went. No threat to the gulf City on the coast. Little did they know that the perfect storm was brewing and had been gathering up strength as it made a beeline in their direction. No mercy was shown as the sea had taken claim of the land and citizens of the doomed city with spitfire rain, record-breaking Gale winds and an unheard of rise in sea level.

The aftermath had been a journey into hell. Bodies of people and animals were strewn everywhere. The land had been wiped clean where buildings and landmarks had once stood. The devastation was mind-boggling. Services designed to deal with a burdening death toll were overwhelmed. Attempts to bury the dead at sea failed as many of them had washed back onto the beach. Finally, as a last resort, many the bodies were stacked high and burned in large mounds. The hills of burning bodies were everywhere. The smell of Putrefaction was everywhere. Human ash settled everywhere. It was one of the darkest days in American history. It was the day that " Galveston became Atlantis."
4 reviews
March 30, 2012
I became a fan of Erik Larson after reading Devil In The White City. As a bit of a history buff, I love the way he makes you feel as though you are really in whatever time period he is writing about. This book was especially interesting to me because I have been to Galveston and visited the hurricane museum. Since Erik Larson loves to give a lot of background details I had a hard time getting into the book (a problem I also had with Devil in the White City). But once the hurricane started to get close I got very excited and couldn't put it down. But I was surprised that when the hurricane actually hit I found it to be not so much exciting as it was extremely sad. Larson did such a good job of painting the picture of this hurricane that I was terrified and heartbroken for these poor citizens of Galveston. Of course Devil In The White City was sad as well (being that it centered around a murderer) but every other chapter was filled with the hope and excitement of the fair and the rise of Chicago. Isaac's Storm focused on the failure of the Weather Bureau, the deaths of 6,000 people, and a city that was completely destroyed. A fascinating historical account and definitely a worthwhile read.
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