Erik Larson has become my favorite historian. No matter what subject he chooses – Winston Churchill, the Lusitania, or the Chicago Exposition – he weaves his detailed scholarship into a fascinating narrative.
In Isaac’s Storm, Larson takes on not only an historic hurricane, but the science of meteorology and the United States Weather Bureau. I did not know that the weather service began as an agency of the Signal Corps, or that it was rife with scandals in the days before the 1900 hurricane that ravaged Galveston, Texas. Those accustomed to satellite images and doppler readings may be surprised to learn that the nation’s weather reports once came from a system of telegraph stations around the country. One of its agents, Isaac Cline, was on duty on September 8 when a storm caught the bureau off guard, leading to a death toll that has never been accurately tallied.
Blunders in judgement by Isaac, professional jealousy between the agency’s director and Cuban weather forecasters, and groundless assumptions by other experts were at least partially responsible for the calamity. In hindsight, it is astonishing to read the accounts of survivors who were going about their business as though the growing storm was nothing to worry about. Larson’s research provides poignant and heart-breaking stories of loved ones who might have been saved if only weather authorities had taken the threat seriously.
Eric Larson always does his homework when taking on a new subject. Though I sometimes found his explanations of weather patterns difficult to digest, they were instrumental in helping me understand the difficulties in storm forecasting that remain with us even in this age of improved techniques. This is a piece of history packed with drama that I can recommend enthusiastically.