almost exactly a hundred years ago, Galveston, Texas was nearly obliterated by what remains the the greatest natural disaster in American history. before we started giving storms names from a list, they were named for the person or place who suffered the greatest loss during the storm. while arguably Isaac Cline didn’t suffer the greatest losses, he was certainly at the eye of the storm in many ways. as resident meteorologist in Galveston, he was instrumental in tracking and fatally miscalculating the storm., and he most definitely paid a heavy price.
cyclone comes from the Greek for ‘coils of a snake’, a particularly apt description of the gathering power and eventual strike of the storm. we have Henry Piddington, an English storm watcher, to thank for that term; he also developed ‘horn cards’, one of the few weather mapping tools available to sailors at the turn of the century.
meteorology was hardly the science it’s practitioners thought it to be a hundred years ago. in the U.S., they were struggling to build a bureau, wade through the politics around them, and earn respect in the public eye. but there were problems. while today we may misjudge when it may rain, or just how hot it might get, i don’t think we see errors like this these days:
And then came Monday, March 12, 1888: The Signal Corps’s forecast for New York City predicted “colder, fresh to brisk westerly winds, fair weather”.
What New York City got was the Blizzard of ‘88. Twenty-one inches of snow fell on the city. Two hundred New Yorkers died. Nearly four feet covered Albany. The storm killed four hundred people throughout the Northeast.
This did not help. Not at all.
Isaac thought, though, that he was a good scientist and a respectable meteorologist. he had come to understand weather ‘the way a parent comes to understand a difficult child’. and he likely was right. but a combination of factors, including the almost criminal politics which led to a ban on cabled predictions out of Cuba that most probably could have averted the scale of the Galveston disaster, worked against him.
as Isaac gradually comes to face the storm, we gradually come to understand the inner workings of the science of meteorology. we follow twinned paths. this is part of the appeal of Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger and Cod by Mark Kurlansky. the writing styles are similar in that we’re taken thru the events with side bars of history. Cod is a little different in that it doesn’t deal with a specific event, but does discuss the legal actions impacting access to the fishing grounds, which is sort of an ongoing event around here.
Larson’s writing is wonderful. the book is sprinkled with phrases like ‘the law of convenient epiphany’, and, describing wind plumes, ‘as ephemeral as the copper and bronze veils that appear when water enters whiskey’. in recounting the experiences of passengers on the Louisiana which weathered the storm in the Gulf, Larson observes that even at the leading edge of the storm, the passengers weren't paying attention to the storm flags as ‘[t]hey were seasick and already considered death an attractive option’. there are the occasional funny items, such as learning that Arkansas, completely fed up with Kansas, actually legislated that the name of the state should be pronounced ‘ar-kan-SAW’. reading the book, you get a visceral appreciation for what living in Galveston in 1900 and riding out the storm might have been like.
Larson also illuminates, in a very approachable way, the ongoing discoveries that have helped us understand weather; his explanation of the origins of the barometer is not only accessible, but fun. it’s clear that Larson enjoyed researching and writing this account.
I hunted Isaac’s trail, too, through the wonderfully rich, achingly fragile archives of the Weather Bureau, lodged in the new National Archives Annex outside Washington - a place that makes deep historical research not a chore but an exciting and always profitable journey. I touched records, it seemed, that no one had touched for the better part of a century. I handled the very telegrams that Willis Moore, chief of the bureau, himself had touched. I sneezed a lot.
i’d recommend reading the trilogy in this order: Perfect Storm, Cod, and Isaac’s Storm. we learn about people who faced an unimaginable storm that, at least for those of us in the northeast, is in recent memory, then begin to understand the meaning of their livelihood, and then burrow into the question: how could they not know that the storm would/could be that bad? regardless of the financial constraints that pushed them to take that voyage, why would you risk your life? true, there is some risk in every voyage, as we start to understand in Perfect Storm. and Cod certainly helps us see the constant dangers faced by commercial fishers, despite (or, in some ways, because of) the advances in ship construction, that is just part and parcel of that way of life. Isaac's Storm goes the next step and gets us inside the workings of weather to show us that, regardless of the metrics available to us, the wealth of historical data, the increasing accuracy of predictions, that weather is still a fickle goddess whom we do not fully understand, and who will exact her price for our misunderstandings.