by Erik Larson
On Sept. 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane plowed into Galveston, TX, creating what remains today the most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history.
Erik Larson’s gripping story tells of the storm and meteorologist Isaac Cline’s challenges in recognizing its approach soon enough warn the community.
The book combines the drama of the building storm and the vividly rendered physics of hurricane development with the fascinating story of Cline and his rise through the troubled early days of the U.S. Weather Bureau.
Tragically, his wife Cora, eight-months pregnant with their fourth child, was among the 6,000 to 12,000 people who lost their lives in the storm.
Galveston was particularly vulnerable to storms. Sitting on a 30-mile long barrier island between the Gulf of Mexico and Galveston Bay, its highest point in 1900 was was less than nine feet above sea level. By the time the hurricane hit Galveston, it was pushing a storm surge of nearly 16 feet over the island.
Initially, Cline had been expecting some flooding near the beach. By late afternoon, “immense breakers slid over the surface of the tide and broke against second-floor windows.” Winds of 100 mph were measured before the weather station’s anemometer blew away. Within two hours, winds had increased to about 140 mph. (Some estimates of gusts go as high as 250 mph.) The barometer fell to 28.48, a level so low most meteorologists of the day believed it to be an error.
Cline, along with Cora, his three daughters, brother and 50 neighbors, decided to ride out the storm in his well-built house. When he looked out the door at 6:30 p.m., he saw “a fantastic landscape. Where once there had been streets neatly lined with houses there was open sea, punctured here and there by telegraph poles, second stories, and rooftops.”
Behind his house, “the sea had erected an escarpment of wreckage three stories tall and several miles long. It contained homes and parts of homes and rooftops that floated like the hulls of dismasted ships; it carried landaus, buggies, pianos, privies, red-plush portieres, prisms, photographs, wicker seat-bottoms, and, of course, corpses, hundreds of them. Perhaps thousands.”
Ultimately, a street railway trestle ripped free and was carried by the waves and wind to squarely hit the side of the Cline house.
Larson never lets the suspense go in his telling. He skillfully renders the science of storms, the history of the U.S. Weather Bureau and Cline’s role in early weather forecasting.
The effects of the storm, early observations of the first reporters arriving from outside the city and the human interest stories of miracles and tragedies are as jaw-dropping more than a century later as they were at the time.
You’ll never take a weather map for granted after reading it.