September 1999

A storm that will never be forgotten

By Erik Larson
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It was Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900, and never had Buford T. Morris seen such a beautiful daybreak: The sky seemed to be made of mother of pearl; gloriously pink, yet containing a fish-scale effect which reflected all the colors of the rainbow. Within hours, however, this glorious first light in Galveston, Texas, would be transformed into disaster of unimaginable proportionsÐone that would devastate the seaside town and claim the lives of an estimated 8,000 people as a deadly hurricane blew in from the Gulf of Mexico.

It was, in a sense, Isaac Cline's storm—the man stationed in Galveston for the new U.S. Weather Bureau. Author Erik Larson, who researched survivors' accounts, tells of the hurricane in his new book, Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. Larson, author of two previous books, relates the monumental tragedy with vivid and chilling tales of perseverance, heroism, and mass death.

Throughout the book, the author brings insight to the forces that drive storms and storm damage—knowledge not available to weather observers at the end of the 19th century. He also reveals how a rivalry between weather bureaus in the United States and Cuba contributed to the U.S. Weather Bureau's failure to provide sufficient storm warning. Cuban experts' warnings of a hurricane, the U.S. weather hierarchy decided, were alarmist and not worthy of public attention.

Later the U.S. Weather Bureau would take credit for issuing the proper warnings despite Cline's feeble protest of the lie. And Cline would one day wonder about the measure of his own responsibility for the thousands of lives lost.

The losses were extraordinary. St. Mary's Orphanage and nearly all of its 93 children were swept away—including young charges tethered in groups by clothesline in the nuns' ill-fated attempt to save their lives. Houses floated down streets, becoming battering rams as water from the nearby bay and from the Gulf of Mexico converged on the town, rising well above 30 feet in depth and above the rooftops of many two-story homes.

Dr. S.O. Young, a Cline acquaintance, was drawn by the sheer power of the storm as it assailed his home. Opening the door to a second-floor gallery, he hauled himself outside and was immediately pinned to the exterior wall by 125-mph winds. He remained there, agape, as he surveyed the unfolding drama.

"Waves swept through Young's neighborhood," writes Larson, "propelling huge pieces of wreckage. Within minutes, the only other house still standing began a slow pirouette, rose like a huge steamboat . . . and suddenly disappeared with the occupants, a family of four, still inside. My feelings were indescribable as I saw them go," Young later recounted.

Finally, the rescuers came. As many as 500 dead, some were told. Seasoned reporters accustomed to hearing exaggerated claims soon learned that, in fact, this report of the death toll was a vast understatement.

Meantime, the Weather Bureau had not finished with its misguided claims, according to Larson. After the hurricane left Galveston, the chief of the U.S. bureau telegraphed a New York newspaper that the storm had lost its destructive force.

Not so. For the storm careened to the north and east, bringing hurricane-force winds to Chicago and Buffalo. It killed six loggers in the Eau Claire River, moved to the Atlantic, sank six vessels, and drove 42 fishing vessels aground near mainland Canada. Finally, Isaac's storm crossed the top of the world and disappeared into Siberia.

Loretta Kalb has covered earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters for the Associated Press.

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