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Books: Storm of the century

Books | A lesson from 1900 for the scientists of 2000

Issue: "Forbes," Nov. 20, 1999

Isaac's Storm is more than excellent history; this bestseller is also a timely tale about God's creation and man's hubris. When the Great Storm of 1900 hit the unsuspecting coastal city of Galveston, Tex., on Sept. 8 of that year, it killed between 6,000 and 10,000 people. (There's no exact count because bodies were burned in great piles for weeks.) "The nation in 1900 was swollen with pride and technological confidence," Erik Larson records. "There was talk even of controlling the weather; of subduing hail with cannon blasts and igniting forest fires to bring rain. In this new age, nature itself seemed no great obstacle." Isaac Cline, the intelligent, competent Texas chief of the new National Weather Bureau, was a man of that new age. He wrote in the Galveston paper, just a few years before the Great Storm, "The coast of Texas is according to the general laws of the motion of the atmosphere exempt from West India hurricanes.... The opinion held by some who are unacquainted with the actual condition of things, that Galveston will at some time be seriously damaged by some such disturbance, is simply an absurd delusion." But neither Cline nor any other meteorologist knew anything about the jet stream, for instance, or the Gulf Stream. Those had not been discovered. Such invincible ignorance wasn't confined to meteorology: Physicists thought they knew all there was to know about the atom--until troublemakers showed up with theories about relativity and quantum mechanics. Turn-of-the-century overconfidence was contagious. That confidence--that arrogance--and political sensibilities were why the Weather Bureau (which had recently split off from the Army Signal Corps) downplayed the threat of a hurricane. The storm sighted on its course through the Caribbean posed no real threat, the Bureau contended. There were plenty of signs of the coming storm--from weather conditions on Galveston Island to warnings from Cuban weather observers. But island residents, prosperous and self-confident, never received the warnings. The wind picked up and the barometer dropped. The rain began. A few residents moved their prized possessions to their second floors. But "no one seemed terribly worried," Larson writes. "Galveston apparently took such things in stride." Train passengers found themselves stranded by rising water, but weren't worried--at first. "The first intimation of the true extent of the disaster came when the body of a child floated into the [train] station," an eyewitness recounts. The storm itself was monstrous; in Mr. Larson's effective words, it "moved through the city like a mailman delivering dynamite.... Sustained winds must have reached 150 miles per hour, gusts perhaps 200 or more. The sea followed. Galveston became Atlantis." He paints for readers a postcard of turn-of-the-century Galveston, which was the state's leading center of commerce, and on its way to becoming the South's greatest port. And then he shows the destruction. The city never recovered from the Great Storm--it rebuilt, but business moved up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, and Galveston became an also-ran, its economy dependent upon tourists. It's a tragic story, but it's more. It's a lesson from 1900 for the bioengineers and superstar scientists of 2000. "Against the hubris of the age," Mr. Larson writes, "what was a mere hurricane?" Ask Galveston.

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