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Taken By Storm

Author Erik Larson follows the hurricane that destroyed Galveston

In 1900, Galveston was a bustling port city, racing neck and neck with Houston for supremacy on the Gulf Coast. But on September 8, 1900, Galveston was destroyed. A hurricane struck the unprepared city, killing 8,000 people. The natural disaster remains the deadliest in American history.

Author Erik Larson, a weather junkie living in Seattle, had never heard of the storm until he stumbled across an old account. Larson had set out to recount the tale of William Marsh Rice, the founder of Rice University, who at the turn of the century suffered the most clichéd of deaths: He was poisoned by his butler. But while researching that story, Larson scanned a microfiche page of a Galveston newspaper -- and there saw a headline announcing that thousands were dead. He was amazed by the black-and-white photos, taken in the storm's aftermath. They showed, he says, "devastation equaled only in Hiroshima." Larson put Rice aside; he'd found a new project.

Recently, Houston's Brazos Bookstore was packed when Larson read from his new bestseller, Isaac's Storm (Crown Publishers). History and weather buffs gathered to hear about the mass destruction; others in the audience raised their hands to tell about the ancestor who rode to safety on a swimming horse, or to figure out how far away a relative lived from Isaac Cline, the doomed and arrogant weatherman whose life Larson tracks along with the narrative of the hurricane.

The weather man: Erik Larson.
The weather man: Erik Larson.

Cline's arrogance is the hinge upon which Isaac's Storm swings; he once wrote that anyone who believed a hurricane could hit Galveston was suffering from "an absurd delusion." Never mind that Indianola, a once bustling port not far down the coast, had been made a ghost town, twice devastated by hurricanes. Isaac Cline predicted that none would ever hit Galveston.

Larson sees Isaac Cline as a product of his time, an era of such confidence and scientific certitude that men thought they knew nature and could manage it.

When one member of the audience described Cline as forever notorious, Larson corrected him. "I don't know if I'd call him notorious," he said. "He was just human."

In the course of his research, Larson uncovered other stories as well, stories of sorrow, betrayal, rivalries, death. Larson's depiction of the National Weather Bureau at the turn of the century is especially damning: unseemly rivalries between officials; a gambling weatherman who pawned his equipment but sends in his reports anyway; and, most compelling, the bureau's chief, who cut off communications with Cuba a week before the storm occurred, claiming that the Cubans were stealing American weather information. Days before the storm hit Galveston, the Cubans declared it a hurricane and said it would strike in the Gulf.

The warning would not have mattered anyway. In 1900, the Weather Bureau preferred vague forecasts to risking error, even outlawing the word "tornado." The hot-blooded Cubans, it was thought, threw weather terminology around recklessly.

Besides, to admit the possibility of a hurricane would be a public relations disaster for Galveston. But when the unnamed storm hit the unsuspecting city, Galveston was pulverized, and the future of Houston secured. Otherwise, in Larson's view, Galveston today would be the "San Francisco of the Gulf," rather than a beach town whose mansions recall the hubris of a grander time.

Recently, Larson and Channel 11 weatherman Neil Frank addressed about 500 people at a luncheon in Galveston. Frank declared, "Every schoolkid in America should read this book." By that, Frank meant that we should be afraid of the weather. And Larson agrees: Weather, he believes, is the one force of nature we may never fully understand or control.

Not that people, then or now, like to admit their powerlessness. Even if the Weather Bureau had issued a warning on that fateful day in 1900, he believes, Galveston residents might not have evacuated. "This is Texas, after all," he says. "Their response might have been, 'Who says?' "

Larson says he'll next attempt a book about either a serial killer or World War II. But for the moment, he's basking in the glory of the current book's success. Isaac's Storm recently hit No. 10 on the New York Times best-seller list, its success unabated by that of another recent best-seller, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm.

Larson recalls the moment when he learned that he was not the only one writing about a hurricane. "It was like the Kennedy assassination," he says. "I remember where I was, what time, what the weather was like. I still haven't read it. I didn't want my book colored by his book." Larson needn't worry. Like the eerie red of the sky before a hurricane, Isaac's Storm has a shade all its own.

 
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