Erik Larson

Isaac’s Storm

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Isaac’s Storm Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 49-page guide for “Isaac’s Storm” by Erik Larson includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 6 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like American Hubris at the Turn of the Century and The Effect of Politics on Severe Weather.

Isaac’s Storm is a nonfiction book published in 2000 by the American author and journalist Erik Larson. Subtitled A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Storm in History, the book chronicles the events surrounding the September 9, 1900 Galveston, Texas hurricane which killed between 6,000-10,000 people, making it the deadliest natural disaster in US history. The story is largely told through the experiences of Isaac Monroe Cline, a meteorologist who led the US Weather Bureau station in Galveston at the time of the storm. A New York Times bestseller, Isaac’s Storm went on to win the Louis J. Battan Author’s Award for outstanding works related to the atmospheric sciences.

This study guide refers to the 2000 edition published by Vintage Books.

Plot Summary

In the early morning hours of September 9, 1900, Galveston-based meteorologist Isaac Cline can’t sleep. Although the central US Weather Bureau office and its West Indies branch are unconcerned about a tropical disturbance headed in the direction of Galveston, Isaac is troubled by the sound of deep-ocean swells falling on the beach three blocks from his house, evidence he suspects of a powerful storm surge rolling across the Gulf of Mexico. At dawn, Isaac rides his horse-and-cart to the beach where he counts the minutes between swells.

The book shifts into the scientific history of hurricane prediction and the science behind the phenomenon of this kind of tropical storm. It also touches on the unique environmental factors of Texas in the year 1900, explaining how they created perfect conditions for the disaster. First, Larson theorizes about the possible forces that contributed to its formation. He traces the hurricane back in time, starting with its roots south of Cuba, which lies at the entrance of the Gulf of Mexico where the hurricane later reached full force. Looking at a variety of telegrams and letters from the spring of 1900 leading up into late summer, Larson contends that Cuba’s meteorologists were perhaps the most accurate of any scientists who worked on the hurricane’s forecast. They sensed, early on, that the storm would escalate into a catastrophe and had the data to prove it. Cuba’s meteorologists desperately tried to convince the United States’ Weather Bureau that a hurricane was likely to develop and head toward southern Texas, decimating any towns in its path before diffusing further inland. The Weather Bureau rejected Cuba’s report, believing that the storm would curve more sharply hitting the western coast of Florida after losing much of its momentum overseas.

Larson goes on to reconstruct the possible experiences of several residents of Galveston on the night before the hurricane. According to sources, as the storm approached, it lightly flooded the streets, irking residents but seeming nothing out of the ordinary, as such tropical storms were common during the late summer months. The residents had already been placated by Isaac’s erroneous assurances that the storm would roll over somewhat harmlessly, so they took few health or safety measures. A couple of hours in, the rain and wind began to increase in magnitude. It was around this time that Galveston stopped transmitting wire telegrams. At first, though their silence troubled people on the mainland, it was attributed to a power outage. However, as the hurricane passed over Galveston’s small island and mainlanders realized its force, they feared for the fate of the town.

The hurricane devastated Galveston, submerging half of the island by eroding it in a matter of hours. It killed between 6,000 and 10,000 residents, representing between one-fifth and one-third of the total population. Thousands more were rendered homeless, and most of the town lay beneath eight feet of water. In the storm’s wake, the US government alienated the town’s survivors, who had to rebuild Galveston on their own. A devastated Isaac went on to mourn the death of his wife, Cora, killed by the storm whose existence he so tragically denied. Isaac’s later writings would try to minimize the magnitude of his failure, alleging that he ran through the town that night, warning residents to run from the beach.

Larson laments the fact that the overconfidence of one man in a position of scientific authority would lead to the deaths of so many innocent people. The tragedy set a precedent that informed the future of meteorological science and galvanized government support for the accurate tracking and reporting of weather and climate systems. Nevertheless, Larson ends the book optimistically, noting that Galveston successfully raised its foundational sea level and returned the city to most of its former condition. Though it was eventually succeeded by Houston as Texas’ main commercial port city, the story of its recovery has become a ubiquitous symbol of American resilience.

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