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Hurricanes Harvey and Irma spark interest in Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

AbeBooks.com is currently seeing a spike in sales of Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson, a non-fiction book first published in 1999, which provides a real insight into hurricanes, weather forecasting and human folly.

Larson’s book details the hurricane that hit Galvaston, Texas, in 1900 and killed more than 6,000 people, making it America’s worst natural disaster. The ‘Isaac’ referenced in the title is Isaac Cline, chief observer of the Weather Bureau in Galvaston. Larson explains the events mainly from Cline’s perspective and details the mistakes that contributed to the huge loss of life in a city that was completely unprepared.

The book was last published in 2008, and has been a bestseller around the world. However, Isaac’s Storm has gone off the radar in recent years and is now effectively out-of-print.

It details how weather forecasting was rapidly developing at the turn of the century, but the Weather Bureau’s communication skills and leadership left much to be desired.

Larson’s book also shows how badly prepared the United States used to be for extreme weather. In the case of the 1900 hurricane,  Larson builds a picture of a world enjoying a period of unheard of technological advancement where nature really wasn’t regarded as much of a threat. The Weather Bureau was an organization spoiled by internal politics, according to Larson, that had “banned the use of the word ‘tornado’ because it induced panic.” It chose to ignore warnings from Cuba and attempted to centralize communications around storm warnings.

Galvaston’s highest point in 1900 was just 8.7 feet above sea level. Because record-keeping was rather sketchy at this point, details of any previous floods of the town were considered to be myths.

Larson’s description of the winds, ranging from 150pm to 200mph, and multiple storm surges of water are intense. Wooden houses were picked up and crushed. Debris filled the air and the sea, and became incredibly dangerous. Cline – who could have evacuated his family – lost his pregnant wife, three daughters and his younger brother in the storm.

Willis Moore, the chief of the US Weather Bureau, wrote that the Galvaston storm was a one-off. “Galvaston should take heart as the chance are that not once in a thousand years would she be so terribly shaken.” The city, which built a sea wall in response to the 1900 disaster, was hit by hurricanes in 1915, 1919, 1932, 1941, 1943, 1949, 1957, 1961 and 1983, according to Larson.  Galvaston is 60 miles from Houston and felt the effects of Hurricane Harvey just days ago.

Larson’s sources included Isaac Cline’s 1945 memoir, Storms, Floods and Sunshine, the Weather Bureau archives, and Galvaston’s Rosenberg Library.

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