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

Erik Larson
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (610 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Reading in his signature dispassionate style, narrator Edward Herrmann brings an eerie calm to this powerful chronicle of the deadliest storm ever to hit the United States--a huge and terribly destructive hurricane that struck land near Galveston, Texas in September of 1900. In this abridged recording, Author Erik Larson re-creates the events leading up to the disaster in astonishing detail, tracing the thoughts and actions of Isaac Cline, a scientist with America's burgeoning U.S. Weather Bureau. Cline's unwavering confidence--"In an age of scientific certainty one could not allow one's judgment to be clouded..."--blinds the meteorologist to the deadly onslaught about to be unleashed. Herrmann's calculated performance reflects the impending doom and dangers inherent to an unquestioned and absolute faith in science. (Running time: 5 hours, 4 CDs) --George Laney --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Torqued by drama and taut with suspense, this absorbing narrative of the 1900 hurricane that inundated Galveston, Tex., conveys the sudden, cruel power of the deadliest natural disaster in American history. Told largely from the perspective of Isaac Cline, the senior U.S. Weather Bureau official in Galveston at the time, the story considers an era when "the hubris of men led them to believe they could disregard even nature itself." As barometers plummet and wind gauges are plucked from their moorings, Larson (Lethal Passage) cuts cinematically from the eerie "eyewall" of the hurricane to the mundane hubbub of a lunchroom moments before it capitulates to the arriving winds, from the neat pirouette of Cline's house amid rising waters to the bridge of the steamship Pensacola, tossed like flotsam on the roiling seas. Most intriguingly, Larson details the mistakes that led bureau officials to dismiss warnings about the storm, which killed over 6000 and destroyed a third of the island city. The government's weather forecasting arm registered not only temperature and humidity but also political climate, civic boosterism and even sibling rivalries. America's patronizing stance toward Cuba, for instance, shut down forecasts from Cuban meteorologists, who had accurately predicted the Galveston storm's course and true scale, even as U.S. weather officials issued mollifying bulletins calling for mere rain and high winds. Larson expertly captures the power of the storm itself and the ironic, often catastrophic consequences of the unpredictable intersection of natural force and human choice. Major ad/promo; author tour; simultaneous Random House audio; foreign rights sold in Germany, Holland, Italy, Japan and the U.K. (Sept.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From School Library Journal

YA-Larson has brought together powerful elements to create one of the most memorable of the "natural disaster" docudramas that have come out recently. Meteorologists within the U.S. Weather Bureau at the turn of the 20th century had become so confident of their own forecasting abilities that they dismissed with irritation troubling weather reports out of Cuba. In a burgeoning port city like Galveston, TX, in 1900, the idea that severe damage could be done by a hurricane seemed preposterous. Following several threads at once, Larson creates a likable character in the real-life weatherman Isaac Cline, tracing his career as a meteorologist. A tropical depression takes on an ominous life of its own as it thrashes its way through the Caribbean and up through the Gulf of Mexico. The town of Galveston becomes one of the major characters in the story. Poignant details and sweeping narrative create a book that is hard to put down even though the outcome is a well-known historical fact: more than 6000 dead and an entire city devastated. At the same time, Larson chronicles a critical period of history for the National Weather Bureau. The blatant errors in judgment led to changes within that federal agency. More than anything, this is a gripping and heartbreaking story of what happens when arrogance meets the immutable forces of nature.
Cynthia J. Rieben, W. T. Woodson High School, Fairfax, VA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

One hundred years ago, come September, a hurricane ripped through Galveston, TX, submerging most of the low-lying city, killing unknown thousands of its residents, and forever changing its economic destiny. The sheer magnitude of the disaster practically guarantees that any book about it will be fascinating, but Larson goes further, weaving in the story of government meteorologist Isaac Cline, who lost his wife and home in the storm and barely survived himself. Cline was afterward seen as a hero, but he had actually dismissed his brother's warnings about the storm and done nothing to prepare Galveston for its coming. Isaac's Storm is a compelling story of nature's overwhelming power and of government blunders. This abridgment makes it a good length for listening, and actor Edward Herrmann's well-modulated reading moves its complex story along nicely. Recommended for general collections.
-R. Kent Rasmussen, Thousand Oaks, CA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

This engrossing disaster book concerns the Galveston hurricane of 1900, still by far the high-water mark in American natural catastrophes. Like the Johnstown Flood that occurred 10 years earlier (see David McCullough's Johnstown Flood, 1987), nature's wrath was mightily aided by man's obliviousness. Larson highlights two central actors in the drama: the hurricane itself, beginning with its origin in Saharan westerly winds, and Isaac Cline, the Weather Bureau's sentinel in Galveston. Setting the stage, Larson depicts a wealthy, optimistic Galveston, unconcerned by its site on a barrier island scant feet above sea level, blithely ignorant of the storm heading its way. En route to destiny, the hurricane previously walloped Cuba, but a Cuban forecaster's intuitive prediction that Texas was the next landfall was not permitted to be telegraphed out by the Weather Bureau's man in Havana. Skeptical of intuition, he believed in meteorological facts, which convinced him the storm was fizzling out east of Florida. For the main act, Larson reconstructs Isaac Cline's day on 8 September 1900 and ratchets up the tension as clouds gather, the effective device being the sequence of perceptions that disaster was inescapable. Were the rolling waves worrisome? If not, the splintering of the boardwalk concentrated Galvestonians' attention--but, by then, the single railroad out was cut. A further mark of Larson's depth as a writer is his ambivalence about Cline, who may not have acted as heroically as depicted in his own memoir. Although the subject is grim, this telling is a deftly told fable of folly and fate. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Kirkus Reviews

There is bad weather, and there are 100-year storms. Then there are meteorological events. In September 1900, one of the latter visited Galveston, Tex., and ate the city alive. Larson tells the story with (at times overnourished) brio. The Isaac in Larson's (Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of Americas Gun Crisis, 1994) title is Isaac Cline: head meteorologist of the Galveston station of the US Weather Bureau in 1900, a man who thought he had the drop on weather systems because he had data, and from data he could predict the meteorological future. But, as Larson shows, from Philo of Byzantium in 300 b.c. to the talking weatherheads of today, forecasting the weather has always been a ``black and dangerous art.'' When Cline blithely stated that Galveston's vulnerability to extreme weather was ``an absurd delusion,'' he was inviting trouble, and it came calling. A series of administrative snafus and ignored warnings from Cuba found the city unprepared for the monster rogue hurricane. The air turned wild and gray, a storm surge swept over the city, the wind became ``a thousands little devils, shrieking and whistling,'' said a survivor. It is now thought to have topped 150 mph. ``Slate fractured skulls and removed limbs. Venomous snakes spiraled upward into trees occupied by people. A rocket of timber killed a horse in mid-gallop.'' Its estimated that 8,000 people died, and Cline was not decorated for his brilliant forecasting by a grateful city government. Larson paints a withering portrait of the early Weather Bureau and offers a wild and woolly reconstruction of the storm, full of gripping anecdotal accounts told with flair, even if he overplays the portents, sapping their menace and turning them into a melodrama most often accompanied by trembling piano keys. Cline saw himself as ``a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in his rheumatoid knee.'' He should have listened to his bones. Larson captures his ignominy, and the storm in its fury. (Author tour) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

“A gripping account ... fascinating to its core, and all the more compelling for being true.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Gripping ... the Jaws of hurricane yarns.” —The Washington Post

"The best storm book I've read, consumed mostly in twenty-four hours; these pages filled me with dread. Days later, I am still glancing out the window nervously. A well-told story." —Daniel Hays, author of My Old Man and the Sea

"Isaac's Storm so fully swept me away into another place, another time that I didn't want it to end. I braced myself from the monstrous winds, recoiled in shock at the sight of flailing children floating by, and shook my head at the hubris of our scientists who were so convinced that they had the weather all figured out. Erik Larson's writing is luminous, the story absolutely gripping. If there is one book to read as we enter a new millennium, it's Isaac's Storm, a tale that reminds us that there are forces at work out there well beyond our control, and maybe even well beyond our understanding." —Alex Kotlowitz, author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here

"There is electricity in these pages, from the crackling wit and intelligence of the prose to the thrillingly described terrors of natural mayhem and unprecedented destruction. Though brimming with the subtleties of human nature, the nuances of history, and the poetry of landscapes, Isaac's Storm still might best be described as a sheer page turner." —Melissa Faye Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing

"Superb…. Larson has made [Isaac] Cline, turn-of-the-century Galveston, and the Great Hurricane live again." —The Wall Stret Journal

"Erik Laron's accomplishment is to have made this great-storm story a very human one —thanks to his use of the large number of survivors' accounts—without ignoring the hurricane itself." —The Boston Globe

"Vividly captures the devastation." —Newsday

"This brilliant exploration of the hurrican's deadly force...tracks the gathering storm as if it were a character…. Larson has the storyteller's gift of keeping the reader spellbound." —The Times-Picayune

"With consumate narrative skill and insight into turn-of-the-century American culture…. Larson's story is about the folly of all who believe that man can master or outwit the forces of nature." —The News & Observer

"A powerful story ... a classic tale of mankind versus nature." —The Christian Science Monitor

From the Inside Flap

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 devestating 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.

From the Back Cover

"The best storm book I've read, consumed mostly in twenty-four hours; these pages filled me with dread. Days later, I am still glancing out the window nervously. A well-told story."-- Daniel Hays, author of My Old Man and the Sea

"Isaac's Storm so fully swept me away into another place, another time that I didn't want it to end. I braced myself from the monstrous winds, recoiled in shock at the sight of flailing children floating by, and shook my head at the hubris of our scientists who were so convinced that they had the weather all figured out. Erik Larson's writing is luminous, the story absolutely gripping. If there is one book to read as we enter a new millennium, it's Isaac's Storm, a tale that reminds us that there are forces at work out there well beyond our control, and maybe even well beyond our understanding."-- Alex Kotlowitz, author of The Other Side of the River and There Are No Children Here

"There is electricity in these pages, from the crackling wit and intelligence of the prose to the thrillingly described terrors of natural mayhem and unprecedented destruction. Though brimming with the subtleties of human nature, the nuances of history, and the poetry of landscapes, Isaac's Storm still might best be described as a sheer page turner."-- Melissa Faye Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing

"Superb...Larson has made [Isaac] Cline, turn-of-the-century Galveston, and the Great Hurricane live again." --The Wall Stret Journal

"Erik Laron's accomplishment is to have made this great-storm story a very human one--thanks to his use of the large number of survivors' accounts--without ignoring the h urricane itself." --The Boston Globe

"Vividly captures the devastation." --Newsday

"This brilliant exploration of the hurrican's deadly force...tracks the gathering storm as if it were a character...Larson has the storyteller's gift of keeping the reader spellbound." --The Times-Picayune

"With consumate narrative skill and insight into turn-of-the-century American culture...Larson's story is about the folly of all who believe that man can master or outwit the forces of nature." --The News & Observer

"A powerful story...a classic tale of mankind versus nature." --The Christian Science Monitor

About the Author

Erik Larson, a contributor to Time magazine, is the author of The Naked Consumer and Lethal Passage (Crown, 1994). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper's, and other national magazines. He lives in Seattle.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

TELEGRAM
Washington, D.C.
Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union
Houston, Texas

Do you hear anything about Galveston?
        
Willis L. Moore,
        
Chief, U.S. Weather Bureau

The Beach
September 8, 1900

Throughout the night of Friday, September 7, 1900, Isaac Monroe Cline found himself waking to a persistent sense of something gone wrong. It was the kind of feeling parents often experienced and one that no doubt had come to him when each of his three daughters was a baby. Each would cry, of course, and often for astounding lengths of time, tearing a seam not just through the Cline house but also, in that day of open windows and unlocked doors, through the dew-sequined peace of his entire neighborhood. On some nights, however, the children cried only long enough to wake him, and he would lie there heart-struck, wondering what had brought him back to the world at such an unaccustomed hour. Tonight that feeling returned.
        
Most other nights, Isaac slept soundly. He was a creature of the last turning of the centuries when sleep seemed to come more easily. Things were clear to him. He was loyal, a believer in dignity, honor, and effort. He taught Sunday school. He paid cash, a fact noted in a directory published by the Giles Mercantile Agency and meant to be held in strictest confidence. The small red book fit into a vest pocket and listed nearly all Galveston's established citizens--its police officers, bankers, waiters, clerics, tobacconists, undertakers, tycoons, and shipping agents--and rated them for credit-worthiness, basing this appraisal on secret reports filed anonymously by friends and enemies. An asterisk beside a name meant trouble, "Inquire at Office," and marred the fiscal reputations of such people as Joe Amando, tamale vendor; Noah Allen, attorney; Ida Cherry, widow; and August Rollfing, housepainter. Isaac Cline got the highest rating, a "B," for "Pays Well, Worthy of Credit." In November of 1893, two years after Isaac arrived in Galveston to open the Texas Section of the new U.S. Weather Bureau, a government inspector wrote: "I suppose there is not a man in the Service on Station Duty who does more real work than he. . . . He takes a remarkable degree of interest in his work, and has a great pride in making his station one of the best and most important in the country, as it is now."
        
Upon first meeting Isaac, men found him to be modest and self-effacing, but those who came to know him well saw a hardness and confidence that verged on conceit. A New Orleans photographer captured this aspect in a photograph that is so good, with so much attention to the geometries of composition and light, it could be a portrait in oil. The background is black; Isaac's suit is black. His shirt is the color of bleached bone. He has a mustache and goatee and wears a straw hat, not the rigid cake-plate variety, but one with a sweeping scimitar brim that imparts to him the look of a French painter or riverboat gambler. A darkness suffuses the photograph. The brim shadows the top of his face. His eyes gleam from the darkness. Most striking is the careful positioning of his hands. His right rests in his lap, gripping what could be a pair of gloves. His left is positioned in midair so that the diamond on his pinkie sparks with the intensity of a star.
        
There is a secret embedded in this photograph. For now, however, suffice it to say the portrait suggests vanity, that Isaac was aware of himself and how he moved through the day, and saw himself as something bigger than a mere recorder of rainfall and temperature. He was a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in a rheumatoid knee. Isaac personally had encountered and explained some of the strangest atmospheric phenomena a weatherman could ever hope to experience, but also had read the works of the most celebrated meteorologists and physical geographers of the nineteenth century, men like Henry Piddington, Matthew Fontaine Maury, William Redfield, and James Espy, and he had followed their celebrated hunt for the Law of Storms. He believed deeply that he understood it all.
        
He lived in a big time, astride the changing centuries. The frontier was still a living, vivid thing, with Buffalo Bill Cody touring his Wild West Show to sellout crowds around the globe, Bat Masterson a sportswriter in New Jersey, and Frank James opening the family ranch for tours at fifty cents a head. But a new America was emerging, one with big and global aspirations. Teddy Roosevelt, flanked by his Rough Riders, campaigned for the vice presidency. U.S. warships steamed to quell the Boxers. There was fabulous talk of a great American-built canal that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific, a task at which Vicomte de Lesseps and the French had so catastrophically failed. The nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence. It was a time, wrote Sen. Chauncey Depew, one of the most prominent politicians of the age, when the average American felt "four-hundred-percent bigger" than the year before.
        
There was talk even of controlling the weather--of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain.
        
In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.

From AudioFile

Erik Larson's exemplary research and skillful writing, and Edward Herrmann's careful and somehow dispassionately compassionate reading, make this audiobook about the 1900 Galveston hurricane gripping and, at times, disorienting. Before Galveston turned into Atlantis, Herrmann intones, "It was a time when the hubris of men led them to believe that they could disregard even nature itself." Though published in 2000, the book has eerie parallels with recent events--a dysfunctional federal agency, a once-in-a millennium storm. The incredible details, especially the storm's unimaginable aftermath (how does a city dispose of 8,000 bodies?) are the stuff nightmares are made of. R.W.S. ©AudioFile, Portland, Maine-- Copyright © AudioFile, Portland, Maine --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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