A Review by Anthony T. Riggio of “Issac's Storm” by Erik Larson, 8-3-15
I have read most of Larson's books on historical events and have never been disappointed. Issac's Storm brought home to me the destructive power of a hurricane and the fact that we are blessed today by superb forecasting technology and tracking of storms. Living by the Gulf of Mexico, I am always anxious when a storm of any kind, is forecasted by the National weather services, and our local weather people. I have lived through several category 1 storms. I built my house to withstand up to a category 4 storm and possibly a category 5. I would not sit out a storm forecasted at a 2 or higher.
In the case of Issac's storm in 1900, that hit Galveston, Texas, it was estimated to be close to a category 5. at that time the National Weather Service was a budding and infant service dependent on oral relays of information from ships at sea or island in the Caribbean, specifically Cuba and other smaller Islands. Ship to shore telegraph was still too new to be of help leaving word of mouth by the sea captains. once information was obtained about a gathering storm, appropriate warnings were supposed to be communicated to the residents of the probable impact sites.
Unfortunately, politics always comes into play especially with a budding service whose reputation was at risk and its confidence by the public and the need for funding. The National Weather Service had weather reporting stations at storm vulnerable locations throughout the United States and representatives were constantly communicating barometric, temperature and wind calculations to the Weather Service's headquarters in Washington. Because of both politics and funding issues the word "hurricane" was forbidden to be communicated because of the variable shifts in weather fronts.
Forecasting was more of an art than a scientific prediction. The weather chief in Galveston was both and educated weather person as well as being a physician. His name was Issac Cline and he sensed the coming storm but was on delicate territory in expressing the need for greater danger to the residents of Galveston whose topography was only about five feet above sea level and while local politicians talked about a sea wall because of previous storms, the idea was put into a bureaucratic filing drawer.
Erik Larson lays out a compelling story based on his usual and extensive research and puts the reader into the minds of the characters in the book, which were all real people. The reader will feel the growing tensions of the arriving storm and feel the wind, rain and flood of Galveston. The reader will feel pity for Issac Cline and disgust for his bosses in Washington DC.
Normally because of our up to the minute forecasting and tracking of hurricanes we feel great comfort and have the time and ability to prepare and evacuate if necessary. The number of casualties and deaths as described by Larson are shocking and good and bad of humanity is clearly demonstrated. l
In those days they did not "name" storms and I suppose the author named it Issac's storm because of his responsibility as a employee of the National Weather Bureau and the amount of personal blame that would be open to public criticism. The book was well written and I highly recommend it to those who enjoy history presented, as Larson so skillfully does in each of his works. I do not hesitate to award five stars to this work.