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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer


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

By Erik Larson
Vintage Books, 323 pp, 1999

Well-written history is sheer pleasure to read. Isaac's Storm is well-written, compelling, exciting, and more than mere pleasure. It's a delightful book.

Larson tells the story of the September, 1900 hurricane that demolished much of Galveston, Texas. This storm killed about 6,000 people. No one in Galveston, including Weather Bureau official Isaac Cline, saw it coming. The national weather service, then in its infancy and fighting for funding and credibility, thought the storm would miss the Gulf and swing back over the Atlantic. It didn't even think it was a hurricane.

But anyone can write a book about an historical event. Larson uses creative non-fiction techniques to tell a story. He concentrates on Isaac Cline, a rising star in the Weather Bureau, sent to Galveston to whip the weather office into shape. Though Cline gave some bad advice on the day of the storm, he is no villain - he was limited by human knowledge. 

The people of 1900 believed what we believe in 2003 - that we have everything figured out. We know everything there is to know about the natural world and no longer need fear natural disasters. We can harness the elements with the reins of high technology. That storm had to swing back over the Atlantic because, darn it, that's what they knew hurricanes did. Technology provided the tools to track and measure storms, so people no longer feared them. They were armed with information!

Lest we poke fun of those misguided souls from the previous century, keep in mind that it's not so different today. High technology makes climbing tall mountains like Mt. Everest a simple, easy task that anyone can do - until a storm comes along and proves us tragically wrong, as chronicled in Into Thin Air. Former president Clinton said in a State of the Union speech that the U.S. and the world actually had the power and means to reverse global warming. What hubris! The earth and Mother Nature will do what they will, regardless of our whims and gadgets. The best we can do is cope.

The poor citizens of Galveston had little time to do even that. All day the sea rose and flooded streets. For a coastal town, this was no unusual occurrence. Children played in the mud and several adults plunged into the sea to enjoy a swim. But the sea kept coming, and the wind kept blowing, and when the roof a restaurant blew off and the building collapsed, killing five men. The water tore apart an orphanage, killing 90 children and ten nuns. Entire families disappeared into the ocean.

Isaac Cline insisted that his wife and children and fifty others wait out the storm in his house. It was a strong house and had withstood other storms. Not this one. The house disintegrated, killing Isaac's wife. His brother Joseph had urged them all to flee toward the center of town - the two brothers would never speak again.

That's what makes this book so effective - Larson concentrates on the human tragedies of ordinary people. Sure, he mixes in histories of hurricanes, the Weather Bureau, and man's attempts to understand and predict the weather, but it is the human story that carries the book. Not to say the other stuff isn't interesting - it is, and adds much to the story. But it can't carry a book.

This book represents the best of historical non-fiction. If more historians wrote this way, history would be a much more popular subject, especially in schools. History is filled with stories - they need only be found and told. I'm glad Larson chose to tell this story, and did it so well.

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