The Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900: A Review of “Isaac’s Storm”

Seeking temporary refuge from the hoards of coursework accruing on overstuffed filing cabinets stretched across my office, I picked up an old, dusty book I had bought years ago in response to immense pressure by one of my more beloved professors.“If you want to do any kind of work with natural disasters or hurricanes, you must read Isaac’s Storm,” he said. I agreed, ordered the book with free two-day shipping on Amazon Prime, then tucked it tightly into place on my bookshelf between Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, which I read and immensely enjoyed, and the Routledge Handbook for Health Communication, which I painstakingly waded through with little pleasure. I bought the book out of respect, and dignified its purchase by keeping it on my most visible bookshelf as I changed schools and homes.

A body lies half buried among the ruins at 21st Street and Avenue O in Galveston
A body lies half buried among the ruins at 21st Street and Avenue O in Galveston

So there it sat, for two years, having been moved to three different houses halfway across the country, atop four Ikea bookshelves with missing bolts and screws and duct-tape holding its frame together. With each move, it’s placement changed. It shared company with my beloved Frankenstein and with an assortment of works by Brian Fagan, serving as a paradoxical bridge between my love for fiction and my thirst for climatological research.

Erik Larson writes about thermodynamics and barometric pressure the way T.S. Elliot wrote of death and destruction – with incredible poise and poetry. Larson’s infatuation with the subject of his novel, meteorologist Isaac Cline, and the immensely powerful hurricane that changed a nation, jumps off the page, putting the reader into the scenery and mindset of the late 1890s and the empty confidence men invested in seemingly minor technological advances. We had, by Larson’s account, solved the law of hurricanes by this time, and no one was more sure of this than Isaac Cline.

The hurricane of mention brought intense winds – topping 200 mph by estimates – and a high storm surge. While the storm itself was a beast and seemed to hit Galveston at an improbably dangerous 45-degree angle, it was not unforeseeable. In fact, days before the storm slammed into the illustrious and blossoming coastal city, Cuba printed in its local press a story about mal teimp – bad weather, more specifically, a monstrous hurricane looming in the Gulf, heading toward Texas.

The ego of one man – three you include H.H.C. Dunwoody and Cline as complacent enablers – delayed warnings that could have saved thousands of lives. As Larson most efficiently surmises, “Moore’s passion for control had gouged a deep chasm between Cuban and U.S. meteorologists.” A struggle for power over Cuba, deep-seeded prejudice and racism against the natives, and political ambitions on the part of Willis Moore (head of the U.S. Weather Bureau at the time) and Dunwoody (his acting second-hand) resulted in an international ban of all cables warning of cyclones or hurricanes out of the Cuban meteorological center. In effect, Willis and Dunwoody doomed Galveston’s residents and its future by withholding information about the storm, by competing to out-predict the Cubans, and by only advising Cline’s Galveston office of the possibility of “some sort of storm” once it was far too late to act.

A body lies half buried among the ruins at 21st Street and Avenue O in Galveston

What struck me about this wonderful work was not simply its incredibly imagery or the author’s verbal prowess, but the parallels the story draws to more-recent events, specifically Hurricane Katrina and Extra-tropical Storm Sandy.

In his closing chapter, Larson briefly touches upon a survey done of the NY-NJ coastline that found the shore to be particularly vulnerable to “even minor storm surge events.” The subways, the study claimed, would be filled with water inches to feet deep and the sloping topography of the entire mid-Atlantic coastline would be especially ripe for a tropical-cleansing. Larson’s book was published in 1999.

As a native to the Gulf Coast and one of the stubborn coastal residents that refused to seek shelter farther inland, I saw most of the similarities to Katrina. I am sure someone who read this in July of 2005 would have seen patterns similar to Betsy or Camille, or other infamous storms with comparably lower death tolls. But for me, now and perhaps always, the story brought back vivid and haunting memories of the first few weeks of September 2005.

If you have ever traveled to Biloxi or Gulfport, Mississippi, you have seen a place that is completely foreign to the one I called home for more than a decade before Katrina ravaged the state. The beach, once lined with 18th and 19th century mansions, the more politically correct term for plantation although they had once served that same purpose, now sits mostly empty with overgrown weeds reclaiming the foundations of homes that withstood Camille, Betsy and many other terrible storms. If you look beneath those weeds you may see the faintest hint of a concrete slab where a house once stood.

I ventured through Gulfport’s most-devastated areas just days after Katrina moved through. I allude to this experience often in my writings as it moved something inside of me that can only be described as an intense and profound consciousness of human fragility. I redirected my life’s ambition to discovering ancient tombs to studying barometric pressure and synoptic weather.

The first thing that struck me was not the absence of landmarks, the same disorienting feeling Larson describes in his novel, but the overpowering and inescapable stench of morbidity. I remember picking up a teddy bear, one eye torn off and the stuffing coming out of the left hand. Larson described one man’s similar experience as he came in on the first rain to Galveston after the hurricane passed through – he saw a lone rocking horse amid a pile of rubble and dared for a second to wonder where it’s master had gone. I felt the same sick feeling, not appreciating the loss but learning to confront it. I snapped a picture. I found my first body under the rubble of an older one-story duplex less than two blocks from the beach. It was a woman, though I couldn’t tell how old because her body was swollen and mostly naked, her clothes ripped from her legs and chest and large gashes with dried yellow crust haphazardly scattered over her body. I did not photograph her, though there are often times, even now, that I wish I had.

The closer I got to the shore, the hotter and more humid the air felt, and the stronger the scent became. Confronted by a two-man team of National Guardsman, I had to turn back before I could reach the shore. But from my vantage point, just across from Highway 90, I could see the tops of roofs jutting out from the ocean surface – the Mississippi Sound as still as a pond. I remember the ominous feeling of standing there, looking into the ocean, and knowing it had just risen to unprecedented heights – possibly 25 feet above my head from where I was standing, and killed nearly 2,000 people. So when I read this novel and the tales of people sorting through bodies, too prideful to cover their noses but too wounded to accept the loss, I am brought back to that moment when I was 16 and standing on that beach, looking out into that warm, still Gulf water, thinking, Dear God, we truly are nothing on this planet.

The tragedy exemplifies the arrogance associated with technological advancements – that we as people have made ourselves immune to the powers of nature, even to hurricanes. The victims were mostly women and children, as most are in any natural disaster. Though the sudden burst of intensity of the storm – a four-feet increase in sea level in less than four seconds – caused many deaths, the prevailing theory of hurricanes at the time yielded that wind, not storm surge, was the most dangerous factor of any hurricane. It is a stark reminder of how much a century can change our perspective of what is known in science.

The veracity of the storm’s nature contradicted the accepted theories of the time –  no storm could “naturally” hit Texas – and the Cubans, who in their own rite had a knack for predicting terrible weather, had warned the world, but to no avail, as their transmission were being blocked by the U.S. government. The victims were causalities of arrogance and an inability to see forward. Much like the debate around climate change, we are now in the cross-heirs of a monster storm, with warnings being blasted across all channels, but no messages being received by those in power and no action being took by those with the necessary resources. Galveston was one storm in one place during a very special time, as was Katrina, and Betsy, and Sandy. All storms are, one way or another, special, and at the same time, incredibly and unequivocally ordinary.

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