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Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

By  Erik Larson

Publisher  Vintage

ISBN  9780375708275

eBook  Kindle Edition

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Sample Chapter

The Beach

* * *

September 8, 1900

THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT of Friday, September 7, 1900, Isaac Monroe Cline found himself waking to a persistent sense of something gone wrong. It was the kind of feeling parents often experienced and one that no doubt had come to him when each of his three daughters was a baby. Each would cry, of course, and often for astounding lengths of time, tearing a seam not just through the Cline house but also, in that day of open windows and unlocked doors, through the dew-sequined peace of his entire neighborhood. On some nights, however, the children cried only long enough to wake him, and he would lie there heart-struck, wondering what had brought him back to the world at such an unaccustomed hour. Tonight that feeling returned.

    Most other nights, Isaac slept soundly. He was a creature of the last turning of the centuries when sleep seemed to come more easily. Things were clear to him. He was loyal, a believer in dignity, honor, and effort. He taught Sunday school. He paid cash, a fact noted in a directory published by the Giles Mercantile Agency and meant to be held in strictest confidence. The small red book fit into a vest pocket and listed nearly all Galveston's established citizens—its police officers, bankers, waiters, clerics, tobacconists, undertakers, tycoons, and shipping agents—and rated them for credit-worthiness, basing this appraisal on secret reports filed anonymously by friends and enemies. An asterisk beside a name meant trouble, "Inquire at Office," and marred the fiscal reputations of such people as Joe Amando, tamale vendor; Noah Allen, attorney; Ida Cherry, widow; and August Rollfing, housepainter. Isaac Cline got the highest rating, a "B," for "Pays Well, Worthy of Credit." In November of 1893, two years after Isaac arrived in Galveston to open the Texas Section of the new U.S. Weather Bureau, a government inspector wrote: "I suppose there is not a man in the Service on Station Duty who does more real work than he.... He takes a remarkable degree of interest in his work, and has a great pride in making his station one of the best and most important in the country, as it is now."

    Upon first meeting Isaac, men found him to be modest and self-effacing, but those who came to know him well saw a hardness and confidence that verged on conceit. A New Orleans photographer captured this aspect in a photograph that is so good, with so much attention to the geometries of composition and light, it could be a portrait in oil. The background is black; Isaac's suit is black. His shirt is the color of bleached bone. He has a mustache and goatee and wears a straw hat, not the rigid cake-plate variety, but one with a sweeping scimitar brim that imparts to him the look of a French painter or riverboat gambler. A darkness suffuses the photograph. The brim shadows the top of his face. His eyes gleam from the darkness. Most striking is the careful positioning of his hands. His right rests in his lap, gripping what could be a pair of gloves. His left is positioned in midair so that the diamond on his pinkie sparks with the intensity of a star.

    There is a secret embedded in this photograph. For now, however, suffice it to say the portrait suggests vanity, that Isaac was aware of himself and how he moved through the day, and saw himself as something bigger than a mere recorder of rainfall and temperature. He was a scientist, not some farmer who gauged the weather by aches in a rheumatoid knee. Isaac personally had encountered and explained some of the strangest atmospheric phenomena a weatherman could ever hope to experience, but also had read the works of the most celebrated meteorologists and physical geographers of the nineteenth century, men like Henry Piddington, Matthew Fontaine Maury, William Redfield, and James Espy, and he had followed their celebrated hunt for the Law of Storms. He believed deeply that he understood it all.

    He lived in a big time, astride the changing centuries. The frontier was still a living, vivid thing, with Buffalo Bill Cody touring his Wild West Show to sellout crowds around the globe, Bat Masterson a sportswriter in New Jersey, and Frank James opening the family ranch for tours at fifty cents a head. But a new America was emerging, one with big and global aspirations. Teddy Roosevelt, flanked by his Rough Riders, campaigned for the vice presidency. U.S. warships steamed to quell the Boxers. There was fabulous talk of a great American-built canal that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific, a task at which Vicomte de Lesseps and the French had so catastrophically failed. The nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence. It was a time, wrote Sen. Chauncey Depew, one of the most prominent politicians of the age, when the average American felt "four-hundred-percent bigger" than the year before.

    There was talk even of controlling the weather—of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain.

    In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle.

ISAAC'S WIFE, CORA, lay beside him. She was pregnant with their fourth child and the pregnancy had entered a difficult stretch, but now she slept peacefully, her abdomen a pale island against the darkness.

    The heat no doubt contributed to Isaac's sleeplessness. It had been a problem all week, in fact all summer, especially for Cora, whose pregnancy had transformed her body into a furnace. Temperatures in Galveston had risen steadily since Tuesday. The heat broke 90 degrees on Thursday, and hit 90 again on Friday. Moisture from weeks of heavy rain concentrated in the air until the humidity was unbearable. Earlier that week Isaac had read in the Galveston News how a heat wave in Chicago had killed at least three people. Even the northernmost latitudes were experiencing unusual levels of warmth. For the first time in recorded history, the Bering Glacier in what eventually would become Alaska had begun to shrink, sprouting rivers, calving icebergs, and ultimately shedding six hundred feet of its depth. A correspondent for The Western World magazine wrote, "The summer of 1900 will be long remembered as one of the most remarkable for sustained high temperature that has been experienced for almost a generation."

    The prolonged heat had warmed the waters of the Gulf to the temperature of a bath, a not-unhappy condition for the thousands of new immigrants just arrived from Europe at the Port of Galveston, known to many as the Western Ellis Island. Some camped now on the beach near the Army's new gun emplacements, steeling themselves for the long journey north to open land and the riches promised them by railroads intent on populating America's vast undeveloped prairie. In a pamphlet called Home Seekers, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe described the lush land of the Texas coast as "waiting to be tickled into a laughing harvest." The railroad come-ons painted Texas as a paradise of benign weather, when in fact hurricanes scoured its coast, plumes of hot wind baked apples in its trees, and "blue northers" could drop the temperature fifty degrees in a matter of minutes. To Isaac, such quirks of weather were a fascination, and not just because he happened to be the chief weatherman in Texas. He was also a physician. He no longer saw patients, but had become a pioneer in medical climatology, the study of how weather affects people, and in this carried forth a tradition laid down by Hippocrates, who believed climate determined the character of men and nations.

    Hippocrates advised any physician arriving in an unfamiliar town to first "examine its position with respect to the winds."

* * *

AS FRIDAY NIGHT ebbed into Saturday, the air at last cooled. The sudden change in temperature would come as a delightful surprise to others in Galveston, but to Isaac it was one more flicker of trouble.

    He let his mind wander through the house. He heard no sound from the children's bedrooms. His eldest daughter, Allie May, was now twelve; his middle daughter, Rosemary, was eleven. His youngest, Esther Bellew, was six, but he still called her his baby. He heard nothing also from his brother, Joseph, who lived in the house. Eight years earlier, Joseph had come to work for Isaac as an assistant observer. The two men were still close, but soon any tie between them would be severed for all time and each would pass the remainder of his life as if the other never existed. Joseph was twenty-nine. Isaac was thirty-eight.

    Isaac's house stood at 2511 Avenue Q, just three blocks north of the Gulf. It was four years old and replaced a previous house that had burned in a fire in November 1896. Isaac had ordered this house built atop a forest of stilts with the explicit goal of making it impervious to the worst storms the Gulf could deliver. It had two stories, with porches or "galleries" off each floor in the front and rear, and a small building in the backyard that served as a stable. The house was ideally situated. On Sundays Isaac and his family would join the torrent of other families walking down 25th Street toward the big Victorian bathhouses built over the Gulf. Sometimes they walked to Murdoch's; other days they chose the Pagoda Company Bath House, with its two large octagonal pavilions and sloping pagoda roofs. The Clines reached it by walking the length of a 250-foot boardwalk that began at the foot of 24th Street, rose 16 vertical feet above the beach, and ran another 110 feet out over the waves, as if its builders believed they had conquered the sea for once and for all. An electric wire ran to a pole far out in the surf, where it powered a lamp suspended over the water. At night bathers gathered like insects.

    Isaac heard the usual sounds that sleeping houses make, even houses as strong as his. He heard the creaking and sighing of beams, posts, and joists as the relatively new lumber of his home absorbed the moisture of the night and released the last heat of day. He heard the susurrus of curtains luffed by the breeze. There would have been mice, too, and mosquitoes. If people sought to protect themselves at all, they propped tents of fine, gauzelike netting over their beds. No one had window screens.

    As Isaac listened, background noises came forward. One noise in particular. It was more than noise, really. If Isaac lay very still, he could feel the shock waves climb the stilts of his house, the same way he felt the vibration of the pipe organ Cora played at church each Sunday. To children in houses all along the beach, particularly the ninety-three children in the big, sad St. Mary's Orphanage two miles west at the very edge of the sea, the sound was a delight. They heard it and felt it and dreamed it. To some, each shock wave was the concussion of British artillery in the Boer War or a ghost gun from the dead Maine, or perhaps the thud of an approaching giant. A welcome giant. The shuddering ground promised a delightful departure from the steamy sameness of Galveston's summers, and it came with exquisite timing: Saturday. Only hours ahead lay Saturday night, the most delicious night of all.

    But the sound frightened Isaac. The thudding, he knew, was caused by great deep-ocean swells falling upon the beach. Most days the Gulf was as placid as a big lake, with surf that did not crash but rather wore itself away on the sand. The first swells had arrived Friday. Now the booming was louder and heavier, each concussion more profound.

ISAAC WOKE AGAIN AT 4:00 A.M., but this time the cause was obvious. His brother stood outside the bedroom door tapping gently and calling his name.

    Joseph too had been unable to sleep. Not a terribly creative man, he described this feeling as a sense of "impending disaster." He had stayed up until midnight recording weather observations from a bank of instruments mounted on the roof of the Levy Building, a four-story brick building in the heart of Galveston's commercial district. The barometers had captured only a slight decrease in pressure. The anemometer, which caught the wind in cups mounted at opposite ends of crossed metal bars, recorded wind speeds of eleven to nineteen miles an hour. It was capable of measuring velocities as high as one hundred miles an hour, but conditions had never come close to testing this capacity, nor did any rational soul believe they ever would. Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, a peculiar oppressiveness had settled over the city. Temperatures remained high well into the night.

    None of these observations was enough by itself to raise concern. For days, however, Isaac had been receiving cables from the Weather Bureau's Central Office in Washington describing a storm apparently of tropical origin that had drenched Cuba. Although Isaac did not know it, there was confusion about the storm's true course, debate as to its character. The bureau's men in Cuba said the storm was nothing to worry about; Cuba's own weather observers, who had pioneered hurricane detection, disagreed. Conflict between both groups had grown increasingly intense, an effect of the unending campaign of Willis Moore, chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, to exert ever more centralized control over forecasting and the issuance of storm warnings. The bureau had long banned the use of the word tornado because it induced panic, and panic brought criticism, something the bureau could ill afford. Earlier that week, Moore had sent Galveston a telegram asserting yet again that only headquarters could issue storm warnings.

    At 11:30 A.M. on Friday, Moore had sent another telegram, this one notifying Isaac and other observers of a tropical storm centered in the Gulf of Mexico south of Louisiana, "moving slowly northwest." The telegram predicted "high northerly winds tonight and Saturday with probably heavy rain."

    Again, nothing especially worrisome. Tropical storms came ashore every summer. They brought wind and rain, even some flooding. Damage was rare. No one got hurt. But in one respect the telegram did surprise Isaac. Until now, Moore's cables had expressed absolute confidence the storm was moving north toward the Atlantic coast.

    Isaac got out of bed, careful not to wake Cora. Joseph's intrusion annoyed him. There was tension between the brothers. Nothing open—at least not yet. Just a persistent low-grade rivalry.

    He and Joseph descended to the kitchen, careful to avoid waking the children, and there by sheer force of habit Isaac put on a pot of coffee. They talked about the weather. A familiar dynamic emerged. Joseph, as the younger brother and junior employee eager to prove himself, made the case too strongly that something peculiar was happening and that Washington must be informed. Isaac, ever confident, told Joseph to get some sleep, that he would take over and assess the situation and if necessary telegraph his findings to headquarters.

    Isaac dressed. He stepped out onto the first-floor porch. With most of the block that faced him across Avenue Q still undeveloped, he had an unobstructed view of the sky and the cityscape to the north. He saw lime-washed bungalows and elaborate three-story homes with gables, bays, and cupolas, and just beyond these the big Rosenberg Women's Home and the Bath Avenue Public School. At the corner, to his right and across the street, stood the three-story home of the Neville family, windows open, dew and drizzle darkening its intricate slate roof. Ever since the great fire of 1885, Galveston had required that roofs be shingled with slate instead of wood as a safety precaution, but in just a few hours the shingles from the Neville house, Isaac's house, and thousands of others throughout Galveston would begin whirling through the air with an effect that evoked for many older residents the gore-filled afternoons they spent at Chancellorsville and Antietam.

    Isaac harnessed his horse to a small two-wheeled sulky that he used mostly when hunting and with a gentle click of the reins set out for the beach three blocks south.

IT WAS A GORGEOUS MORNING, the breeze soft and suffused with mist, jasmine, and oleander. Stratus and cumulus clouds filled most of the sky, some bellying almost to the sea, but Isaac also saw patches of dawn blue rimmed with cloudsmoke. To his left, behind the clouds, the sun had begun to rise and at odd moments it turned the clouds orange-gray, like fire behind smoke. Seagulls hung in threes at fixed points in the sky where they rode head-on into the unaccustomed north wind, wing tips flinching for purchase. The wheels of Isaac's sulky broadcast a reassuring crunch as they moved over the pavement of crushed oyster shells.

    By now the most industrious children were rising to do their chores and get them out of the way so they could go to the beach as early as possible. Everyone reveled in the refreshing coolness. Rabbi Henry Cohen was awake and preparing for Saturday's services. Dr. Samuel O. Young, an amateur meteorologist and secretary of the Galveston Cotton Exchange, was having breakfast and planning his own early-morning trip to the beach. At 18th Street and Avenue O 1/2, in a small two-story rental house, Louisa Rollfing made breakfast for her husband, August, who was due downtown that morning to continue the painting of a commercial building. Louisa looked out the window and as always felt just a hint of disappointment, or maybe sorrow, for although she liked Galveston, she still was not used to the landscape. To her, palms and live oak did not qualify as trees. She missed the great green-black forests of her childhood home in Germany with trees "so old and large, that in some places it is almost dark in daytime."

    Visitors approaching Galveston from the sea saw it as a brilliant swath of light between sea and sky, like mercury floating on a deep blue plain. In the summer of 1900, a boy named John W. Thomason Jr.—later to become a well-known writer of military history—arrived to spend his vacation with his grandfather in a cottage off Broadway, half a dozen blocks from Isaac Cline's office. "The Gulf breeze cooled the city at nightfall; one of the most beautiful beaches in the world offered delightful surf-bathing; and you saw everybody there in the afternoons, bathing, promenading or driving in carriages on the smooth, crisp sands." He left town on Saturday, September 1, exactly a week before Isaac's trip to the beach, very sad to leave. He looked back with longing as his train clicked over the long wooden trestle to the mainland and his newfound friends receded into the steam rising from Galveston Bay. "That city as it was," he wrote, "I never saw again, nor some of the boys and girls I knew there."

    Where critics most faulted Galveston was for its lack of geophysical presence. The city occupied a long, narrow island that also formed the southern boundary of Galveston Bay, spanned by three railroad trestles and a wagon bridge. Its highest point, on Broadway, was 8.7 feet above sea level; its average altitude was half that, so low that with each one-foot increase in tide, the city lost a thousand feet of beach. Josiah Gregg, one of America's most celebrated traveler-raconteurs, wrote in his diary in November 1841 of hearing about a past flood in which "this island was so completely overflowed that a small vessel actually sailed out over the middle of it." He did not believe the story. He could see, however, that someday flooding might "even endanger lives."

    Regardless of one's view, the fact was that Galveston in 1900 stood on the verge of greatness. If things continued as they were, Galveston soon would achieve the stature of New Orleans, Baltimore, or San Francisco. The New York Herald had already dubbed the city the New York of the Gulf. But city leaders also knew there was only room on the Texas coast for one great city, and that they were in a winner-take-all race against Houston, just fifty miles to the north. As of 1900, Galveston had the lead. The year before, it had become the biggest cotton port in the country and the third-busiest port overall. Forty-five steamship lines served the city, among them the White Star Line, which provided service between Galveston and Europe and in just over a decade would lose a great ship to hubris and ice. Consulates in the city represented sixteen countries, including Russia and Japan. And Galveston's population was growing fast. On Friday, September 7, Isaac had read in the News the first brief report on the Galveston count of the 1900 census, which found that the city had grown 30 percent in only ten years.

    Galveston now had electric streetcars, electric lights, local and long-distance telephone service, two domestic telegraph companies, three big concert halls, and twenty hotels, the most elegant being the Tremont, south of Isaac's office, with two hundred ocean-facing rooms, fifty "elegant" rooms with private baths, and its own electric-power plant.

    What most marked the city was money. As early as 1857 Galveston had achieved a reputation as a cosmopolitan town with a passion for fine things. One of its French chefs distinguished himself with a fusion of frontier and Continental cuisine that featured "beefsteak goddam a la mode." By 1900, the city was reputed to have more millionaires per square mile than Newport, Rhode Island. Much of their money was vividly on display in the ornate mansions and lush gardens of Broadway, the city's premier street.

    The city offered everything from sex to sacks of Tidal Wave Flour. For the grieving rich, the giant livery and funeral works of J. Levy and Brothers offered a very special option: "A child's white hearse and harness, with white horses."

WINDOWS WERE OPEN in all the houses Isaac passed, and this imparted to the city an aura of vulnerability. Suddenly the noise of the sulky's wheels seemed more jarring than reassuring. Ordinarily the great bathhouses at the end of the street would have brightened Isaac's mood, but today they looked swollen and worn; they floated on cushions of greenish mist like castles from the mind of Poe.

    Isaac drove until he had a clear view of the Gulf, then stopped the sulky. He stood, pulled out his watch, and began timing the long hills of water that rolled toward the beach. The crests of the waves were brown with sand, but on the surface between crests the spindrift laid intricate patterns of shocking-white lace.

    Isaac knew the low-pressure center of the storm had to be somewhere off to his left, out in the Gulf. It was a fundamental tenet of marine navigation, one he explained during a lecture at the Galveston YMCA on a Saturday evening in 1891. Large crowds gathered for such talks. They consumed the spoken word the way later men would consume television. In the northern hemisphere, Isaac told his audience, the winds of tropical cyclones always move counterclockwise around a central area of low pressure. "Stand with your back to the wind," he said, "and the barometer will be lower on your left than on your right."

    The swells came very slowly, at intervals of one to five minutes. To lay observers, this slow pace might have seemed reassuring. In fact, the slowness made the swells far more ominous, a principle Isaac only vaguely understood. Many years later he would write, "If we had known then what we know now of these swells, and the tides they create, we would have known earlier the terrors of the storm which these swells ... told us in unerring language was coming."

ISAAC TURNED his sulky around and headed back toward his office. The breeze was now head-on and ruffled the mane of his horse. The oyster-shell paving gave way to heavy wooden blocks and these imparted to the sulky a beat like that of a swiftly moving train. The north wind brought Isaac the perfume of a waking city: the clean, almost minty, smell of freshly cut lumber from the Hildenbrand planing mill; coffee from the bulk roasters in the alley between Mechanic and Market; and always, everywhere, the scent of horses.

    At the Levy Building, Isaac walked the three flights to the bureau, stopped inside for a moment, then continued up to the roof. To the east and south he saw the sea; to the west, the spires of St. Patrick's Church, still under construction. The bureau's storm flag, a single crimson square with a smaller black square at its center, rippled from a tower.

    The barometer showed that atmospheric pressure had fallen only slightly from the night before. "Only one-tenth of an inch lower," Isaac said.

    Nothing in the sky, the instruments, or the cables from Washington indicated a storm of much intensity. "The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case," he said. "The brick-dust sky was not in evidence in the smallest degree."

    Even so, the day felt wrong. Ordinarily, offshore winds kept the surf and tides down, but now, despite the brisk north wind, both the surf and tide were rising. It was a pattern new to Isaac.

    He drove his sulky back to the beach. He again timed the swells. He noted their shape, their color, the arc they produced as they mounted the sand. They were heavier now and pushed seawater onto the streets closest to the beach.

    Isaac returned to his office and composed a telegram to the Central Office in Washington. He ended the telegram: "Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously."

    Isaac's concern was tempered by his belief that no storm could do serious damage to Galveston. He had concluded this on the basis of his own analysis of the unique geography of the Gulf and how it shaped the region's weather. In 1891, in the wake of a tropical storm that Galveston weathered handily, the editors of the Galveston News invited Isaac to appraise the city's vulnerability to extreme weather. Isaac, father of three, husband, lover, scientist, and creature of the new heroic American age, wrote: "The opinion held by some who are unacquainted with the actual conditions of things, that Galveston will at some time be seriously damaged by some such disturbance, is simply an absurd delusion."

    At the top of the Levy Building the anemometer spun. The wind vane shifted ever so slightly. The self-recording barometer etched another tiny decline.

FAR OUT TO SEA, one hundred miles from where Isaac stood, Capt. J. W. Simmons, master of the steamship Pensacola, prayed softly to himself as horizontal spheres of rain exploded against the bridge with such force they luminesced in a billion pinpoints of light, like fireworks in a green-black sky.

    He had stumbled into the deadliest storm ever to target America. Within the next twenty-four hours, eight thousand men, women, and children in the city of Galveston would lose their lives. The city itself would lose its future. Isaac would suffer an unbearable loss. And he would wonder always if some of the blame did not belong to him.

    This is the story of Isaac and his time in America, the last turning of the centuries, when the hubris of men led them to believe they could disregard even nature itself.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History" by Erik Larson. Copyright © 2000 by Erik Larson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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