Book Review--August, 2005
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This month's book review was a long time coming. Originally set for November, 2005, it wasn't written up until recently. Nevertheless, this review is a good one since it takes a look at one of the best selling hurricane disaster books, Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson. This book focuses on the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and the Chief Meterologist in the Galveston Office of the Weather Bureau at that time, Isaac Monroe Cline. Larson's book was the first in a recent wave of books that gave historical accounts of past hurricanes, and overall, I found it to be an interesting read.



Isaacs Storm

Originally, I had planned to do a review on this book in November of last year, but unfortunately due to health issues, and school, I was unable to do it then. When it was time to get back on the horse, I just simply didn't. Anyway, I didn't forget about writing up a review, and here it is. While Isaac's Storm is somewhat a controversial book in some circles particularly those in the Houston and Galveston area, I still found it a good read for several reasons.

First of all, like other historical books I've read on hurricanes, it is well detailed and explained. Second, it provides plenty of insight of the bureaucratic and forecasting problems that plagued the Weather Bureau, predecessor to NOAA and the National Weather Service. As a matter of fact, many of those same problems lingered long after the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, and haunted the bureau up and until the time of both of the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, and Long Island Express of 1938.

Lastly, and most interestingly, Larson also provides us with details on the conflict that existed between forecasters at the Weather Bureau office stationed in Cuba, and the native Cuban forecasters. For those, who weren't aware, and didn't happen to read my review on Bob Sheets book, Hurricane Watch, the Cubans were ahead of their time in terms of forecasting the weather, particularly hurricanes. Father Benito Vines was the first in a series of prolific hurricane forecasters out of Cuba, and he actually had started a weather observatory on the island.

But, then came the Spanish-American war, and Cuba became property of the United States after its lopsided victory over the Spanish. The Americans did not like the fact that the Cubans were better forecasters because this made them look bad, especially in light of the fact that the Weather Bureau had become the butt of many jokes back home. Willis Moore, who was trying to make the Weather Bureau more centralized, Colnel Dunwoody, and William Stockman did what they could to make sure that there analysis was the only analysis that matter.

Perhaps you could call it the first skirmish between the Americans and Cubans that led both countries down a slippery slope that ended with the 1959 Revolution, and the emergence of Fidel Castro. Knowing this, and the fact that the Weather Bureau forecasters in Cuba gave no indication that any storm at all, let alone a major hurricane was going to crash ashore on Galveston island the second Saturday in that September of 1900, its pretty difficult to make Isaac Cline, the chief Meteorologist at the Galveston Office, take the majority of the blame on what happened that day.

Now, the book mentions that Cline stated some ten to fifteen years earlier that hurricanes couldn't happen there, but try to remember that Cline was using the limited knowledge and tools available to him at the time. One of the concepts in the book is that Cline was symbolic of an arrogance that existed in America at that time, which was that man knew all that there was needed to know. This was during an era when you had the Titanic, which many hailed as unsinkable only to be tragically sunk on its initial voyage by an iceberg.

Cline was very serious about his craft. He was a hard worker, and a good student, who was one of the top scorers in a very rigorous examination given by the weather service. He considered himself a scientist, who also went to medical school at the University of Arkansas to fulfill a requirement of pursuing a related scientific endeavor to his duties. Besides his scholarship, he was very passionate and Cline was appointed to head the Galveston Office, and was given the task of cleaning the office up, and he did, making it one of the best Weather Bureau outposts in the entire country at the time.

The experience of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 had a tremendous impact on Cline, who rigorously studied the phenomenon of storm surge, and preached about it to anyone who would listen. This monster hurricane at the very end of the 19th century still ranks as the deadliest natural disaster in United States history with at least 6,000 people killed, and estimates even go higher than that (between 8,000 and 12,000). Many of which perished due to the surge, which accounts for 90 percent of all hurricane related deaths. So, it's tough for me to put the entire blame on him when there was more than plenty to go around.

Aside from that, I still felt that the book was enjoyable. Isaac's Storm was one of the first in a recent wave of historical books on past hurricanes that have come out. Before there was the detail that you saw in Sudden Sea, or Storm of the Century, there was Isaac's Storm. Larson does a great job in giving the reader background on Cline's life to that fateful day in September, 1900 by using a series of flashbacks to noteworthy moments or milestones in Cline's life.

He also does a fine job in explaining how weather and hurricanes work so that the average person with very little or no weather background could understand the processes at work. Larson's book also points out that the bureaucracy that existed post Katrina, even existed back then although it mostly centered around the Weather Bureau with forecasting storms such as the hurricanes of 1900, 1935, and 1938 while problems with storms such as Andrew in 1992 and Katrina in 2005 was how each of the storm's aftermath was handled by the federal and state government agencies.

Isaac's Storm also discusses what happened to the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 following its destruction that fateful Saturday, which I found fascinating. We make so much of what hurricanes do at landfall, that we forget that they can still cause problems even beyond that. Hurricane Camille in 1969 is a classic example of that. While I don't agree with some of the ways in which Isaac Cline was depicted, I still feel that you will find this book a wonderful read.

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