Isaacs’s Storm

Erik Larson

Never have I read a book like this, and I’m not sure that I could endure another. It is, at once, fascinating yet distracting, suspenseful yet mind-numbing, inspiring yet fatalistic, beautiful yet ghastly, but sprinkled with poetic prose juxtaposed by disgusting images, and, above all, tragic events of apocalyptic proportions. Hippocrates believed that climate determined the character of men and nations, and here we learn of a storm that changed the character of a City forever and eviscerated generations of Americans in one, never-to-be-forgotten storm, Isaac’s Storm.

Isaac’s Storm (IS) deals with the deadliest storm to ever target America. In one day (8 September 1900), the City of Galveston, Texas, was decimated by a still unnamed hurricane (captioned “Isaac’s Storm” by author-Larson) from which 8,000 people died and an entire City was absorbed in the sea, leaving behind jagged remnants of buildings, protruding like islets, peopled by bodies impaled in trees and floating everywhere, bumping up against the hulls of fractured, listing, silent shipwrecks, while fires rimmed the city casting an ashen pallor as if to defy escape from this scene and the swamp-like land, then mud and silt, all underpinned by thousands of human remains.

The prologue, the unspeakable tragedy itself and its macabre epilogue are seen through the eyes of “Isaac”, Isaac Monroe Cline, head of the local U.S. Weather Bureau. In 1900, weather forecasts were so problematic as to be laughable, and the U.S. Weather Bureau was struggling mightily to prove its worth, during an era when some argued that it was God’s province to ordain the weather and that man had no business trying to prognosticate it. Indeed, Isaac defines storm as “an outcome no rational person would expect.” Isaac was being punished by an assignment to this relative backwater in Galveston, but history was made (and Isaac immortalized in a bizarre manner of speaking), as America suffered the most gruesome storm in its fledgling history. As IS reveals, no weatherman on the planet saw Isaac’s Storm coming; no forewarning was given; all were caught by total surprise. Incoming trains, laden with tourists, washed off their tracks and massive stretches of iron tracks and trestles’ were swept up in monumental waves that hurled them through buildings, demolishing them in seconds, blinding, crushing, drowning and decapitating thousands, even those who had sought sanctuary on the top floor of the tallest buildings; and, as the City became part of the ocean, snakes and other water-creatures swam among the hapless, struggling survivors, many of whom fell prey to these oceanic predators, as animal bites in endless corpses would later reveal to intrepid, grief-stricken survivors.

So is this “a great book”? Make no mistake about it, author-Erik Larson can write, if and when he chooses to do so. His Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck are both much better (also historical novels) and are Must Reads. In Storm, he unveils the essence of pre-storm Galveston in his timeless prologue: “Galveston, with its hedonic infrastructure of pubs and whorehouses, was too pretty, too progressive, too prosperous and too hopeful to be true, a silvery fairy kingdom, so flat at sea level that ships at sea seemed to sail on its very streets, so illusory that it seemed likely to vaporize into a morning mist, like Brigadoon – a very different portrait from that which would present itself a few weeks hence, when inbound ships passengers would smell the pyres of burning corpses even when 100 miles out to sea.” Thus he began this startling book with superb prose, but he soon devolved into an almost evening-news-journalistic style, regaling us with events of world storms from the early 1800’s to 1900, and, then, he turned to his primary topic, Isaac’s Storm. An intriguing, educational and gripping book, to be sure, but would we read it again? Great books constrain us to re-read them repeatedly and savor their deep-seeded nuances like fine wine. Isaac’s Storm, despite its manifest virtues, fails that rigorous, unforgiving test. Moreover, those faint of heart, those who cannot stomach the dark side of the blackest events will eschew this book, as they would those with repugnant descriptions of The Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition and the like. I am glad that I read Isaac’s Storm, and I am indebted to Bermuda YouthNet’s literature-loving founder, Clare Melo, who kindly gave it to me. I did enjoy it, on balance, but I can commend this book only to those who would like to learn about great storms and the tortured history of Galveston, Texas, in its darkest hour, and who can withstand the grizzly details of human tragedy of Gothic dimensions. For myself, I much prefer Larson’s Devil and Thunderstruck.