Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

by Gwen


I don’t get all gushy and stalkerish over authors, but if I did, Erik Larson would be first on my list. He nails the idea of narrative non-fiction so well, I find myself so caught up with the story, that I forget that I already know how it ends. He builds that much suspense and his profiles of the people he writes about are so deep that I feel like I know them.

Take Isaac’s Storm, it’s all about the hurricane that slammed into Galveston on September 8, 1900. A simple search let’s us know that it is the deadliest natural disaster to strike the U.S., with an estimated 8,000 souls lost. Larson takes the story to a whole new level by focusing on Isaac Cline, the head of the weather service office in Galveston and many of his neighbors. By doing this, Larson puts a face on the victims. He makes them people you might know, might have had over to dinner, could have served as godparents for their kids. You get to like them or loathe them, but no matter what, you feel their fear, pain, loss…everything.

Two things struck me as I was reading this.

First, the hubris of America in 1900 is dangerously similar to the way we think now. The “experts” on weather then thought that Galveston would never ever be hit by a hurricane. If it did, the water levels would never go up too far, besides, most homes were built on stilts, they had it covered.

As I read this, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to March’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan. On March 10, 2011, the “experts” in Japan thought that their seawalls were high enough and that their nuclear power plants could take whatever nature threw at them. Just like the citizens of Galveston found in September of 1900, the Japanese learned something on March 11th. They were wrong. We were wrong. We still don’t know what we don’t know.

The other thing that struck me was that Larson is a master at letting the story build….and build….and build and he writes in such an approachable tone that I can’t put him down. At one point, I was clenching the book so tightly that my knuckles were white. Silly, when you think about it, but that makes it memorable. It also makes me question my sanity at times because I find myself thinking that with the way he writes, it is like Larson traveled back in time to get the real story. It’s like he was there..freaky.

Word of warning, the beginning of Isaac’s Storm lagged a bit for me. It outlines the history of the weather service bureau and past hurricanes and while it is important to the story, it just didn’t grab me. So stick with it and you shall be rewarded.

I’ll leave you with a passage that broke my heart..

“For other fathers in homes nor far from his the afternoon was playing out in rather different fashion. Suddenly the prospect of watching their children die became very real.

Whom do you save? Did you seek to save one child, or try to save all, at the risk of ultimately of saving none? Did you save a daughter or a son? The youngest or your firstborn? Did you save that sun-kissed child who gave you delight every morning, or the benighted adolescent who made your day a torment-save him, because of piece of you screamed to save the sweet one?

And if you saved none, what then?

How did you go on?”

Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1st edition (August 24, 1999)
  • ISBN-10: 9780609602331
  • ISBN-13: 978-0609602331
  • 5 Comments to “Isaac’s Storm by Erik Larson”

    1. I read this years ago and remember enjoying it. He’s a master at narrative non-fiction.

    2. “I find myself so caught up with the story, that I forget that I already know how it ends.”

      I loooove nonfiction that does that. And you’re right, Erik Larson does it so, so well. I have Thunderstruck on my shelf now — can’t wait to read it.

    3. I am reading Thunderstruck now:)

    4.  I Have A Question About The Book.,
      The Given the tools and knowledge the U.S Weather Service had in 1900, could the Galveston disaster have been prevented?

    5. Honestly? No, not only did they not have the tools to predict how strong and just where the hurricane was headed, there were so many problems with bureaucracy and egos, that even if they did, the message might not have made it to the residents of Galveston in time. 

      Remember, there were no satellites or wireless telegraphy. That means that they had to depend on reports from ships out in or near the storm, but couldn’t get those reports until a ship came into a harbor. 

      Ego part came into play as well. There was a religious order (I can’t remember, but am thinking the Jesuits) in Cuba that was very experienced in predicting the hurricanes in the area. Their prediction of the strength and landfall was much more accurate than the US Weather Bureau, but the Bureau had a really bad attitude about anything that came from them. Dismissing them as as non-scientific interlopers, the Bureau had been doing everything they could to not let their predictions out. (cutting their telegraph lines, making sure that their bureaus didn’t listen to what they said, etc.)

      Even now, with all of our technology, the only way to prevent massive loss of life and property is to stay out of hurricane prone areas and that isn’t going to happen. Just when we think we have outsmarted Mother Nature, she reminds us that we know nothing. Look at this week, who, besides geologists/seismologists would have even thought that there would be an earthquake that big on the east coast? 

      Sorry if you wanted a short answer:)

    Leave a Reply