Gale force

Isaac's Storm: The Drowning of Galveston

Erik Larson <em>Fourth Estate, 385pp, £16.99</em>


As publicity stunts go, Hurricane Floyd was pretty impressive. What better time to launch a book about hurricanes than in the week a real one hit the south-east coast of America? The spectacle was riveting: house-high seas and 100mph winds sent telephone poles flying, television reporters sprawling and 3.5 million Americans literally packing. In the Bahamas, a whole village was swept away; vast tracts of land were destroyed. New Jersey was badly hit. North Carolina was flattened.

Isaac's Storm is the story of another huge but nameless hurricane, an anonymous monster that ripped into America 99 years ago, on 8 September 1900. It deluged the flourishing Texan city of Galveston and took the lives of 8,000 men, women and children in a single night. It was the worst natural disaster in American history. Isaac Cline was the chief weatherman in Galveston at the time. His story, and that of the storm that was to shape the course of his life, are told in alternate chapters. Cline's story covers four decades. The storm's story covers just a few weeks. Slowly the pathways of man and storm become ominously interwoven, set on a devastating collision course.

Cline was posted to Galveston in 1889 at the age of 27. His job was not just to watch the weather but to establish the first Texas-wide weather service. Eleven years later, Cline had made Galveston one of the most influential weather bureaux in the US. He was a respected and respectable citizen, with a wife and three children and a certain amount of influence in the city that depended heavily on its port. Sea captains and cotton merchants asked his advice about weather conditions, and he gave lengthy lectures on the subject. He was a man of his time, with a firm belief in scientific methods and scientific progress. To men such as Cline, confidently facing the new century, nature seemed a tameable beast.

If hubris was in the air, then Galveston was a city built on hubris. Affluent, confident and thriving, it was dubbed the New York of the Gulf. In 1900 it was the biggest cotton port in the country and the third busiest port overall. Its population was growing fast, its streets were lit with electric lights and serviced by electric streetcars. There were two domestic telegraph companies, three concert halls and 20 hotels. The city enjoyed enviable views over the Gulf of Mexico. The only thing it lacked was any kind of protection against the sea. But then, before 1900, few people in Galveston thought the sea was a problem. The resident weather expert, Isaac Cline himself, was on record as saying that the idea was "simply an absurd delusion".

The storm of 8 September took Galveston utterly by surprise. Not one person had any idea what was heading their way until it was too late to do anything about it but cling to the wreckage and pray. At St Mary's Orphanage, the nuns used clothes lines to tie themselves to the 94 children in their care, hoping that that would keep them all together and safe. Several blocks inland, Rabbi Henry Cohen told his wife to play the piano to distract their children from the water rising outside the window. Judson Palmer, along with his wife and young son, climbed into the bathtub, thinking it might act like a boat. Joseph Cline, Isaac's younger brother, saved himself and two of his brother's children by leaping through a window of a collapsing wall as it transformed itself into a raft. Buildings subsided, as one survivor put it, like babies gently being lowered into their cradles. What had been lively surf at breakfast time was flooding second-floor rooms by teatime. By 6.30pm, much of the city was a sheet of smooth open sea.

Every page of Isaac's Storm oozes with "if onlys". If only Isaac hadn't been so dismissive of Joseph's opinion of the weather that afternoon. If only Isaac's wife hadn't been so heavily pregnant. If only Judson Palmer had gone home ten minutes earlier. If only the storm had veered north as expected. If only the American Weather Bureau hadn't banned all storm warnings from Cuba the week before (just to show the Cubans who was king of the weatherman's castle). If only the Americans had been as good at hurricane detection as the Cubans.

This book is gripping, informative and imaginative from start to finish. Larson combines abundant "human interest" with a good dollop of history and just enough science. He is clear and succinct on the mechanics of these meteorological demons, and his lyrical descriptions of harmless water droplets swelling into gigantic, lethal, airborne armouries stir the spirit. You can only gawp at the courage and foolhardiness of mariners in the days before satellite pictures.

Technology has taken some of the bite out of modern-day hurricanes. Television news is certainly never funnier than when it brings us live footage of reporters skidding helplessly from one side of the screen to the other. But, as this book reminds us, weather experts are still only making educated guesses much of the time and when they get it wrong, hurricanes can be as unpredictable and deadly as ever they were.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A world without children