"An absurd delusion," is how Isaac Cline, a dedicated and highly trained first-generation employee of the new U.S. Weather Bureau, characterized the fear that any hurricane posed a serious danger to the burgeoning city of Galveston, Texas.
Based partly on Cline's expert opinion, Galveston dismissed a proposal to erect a seawall, claiming it a needless, wasteful expense. In 1900, Cline's words reflected not only his own opinion but also the spirit -- what would one day be seen as the hubris -- of his time.
At the turn of the century, Galveston was booming. It was the nation's biggest cotton port, its third-busiest port overall, and the second-most-heavily-traversed entry for immigrants arriving from Europe, nicknamed the "Western Ellis Island." The city had more millionaires, street for street, than any other in America.
The nation, too, was bursting at its borders with optimism and confidence. Victory in the Spanish-American War granted the U.S. a heady new status as a global power. The nation was also being transformed in other ways, from an agrarian culture to an industrial one, from rural to urban, from scientific backwater to technological powerhouse.
Nothing seemed impossible. American warships steamed to China. American engineers prepared to take over construction of the Panama Canal.
Even weather itself seemed at last under the control of man. The recently established U.S. Weather Bureau oversaw a weather monitoring network that included 158 regular observatories, 132 river outposts, 48 rainfall monitors, 2,562 volunteer observers, 12 West Indies stations, 9 coastal stations, and 96 railway posts throughout the country. One newspaper editorialist in 1900 called weather prediction "a complete science."
It wasn't. The hard lesson that nature cannot be predicted, especially at the extremes of its behavior, was delivered to Isaac Cline, to the city of Galveston, and to the entire nation on September 8, 1900. On the evening of that day, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and confronted Galveston with its own powerlessness in the face of nature's fury.
The unnamed storm was born as a small plume of warm air off the African coast. As it moved deliberately but inexorably across the ocean it fed on the heat of the summer waters, drinking in energy until it had grown huge with the potential for destruction. On September 7, cables started arriving in the Weather Bureau's Washington headquarters, relaying ships' encounters with the growing storm in an area off Cuba.
The storm then crossed Florida and arrived in the Gulf, but instead of meandering in the manner of most Gulf storms, it turned and aimed straight for Galveston. The track allowed its winds to blow unobstructed for hundreds of miles over waters made unusually warm by a particularly tropical summer. The storm added to its vast store of energy and pushed a huge wall of water along its leading edge.
On the evening of September 8, the tempest of wind and water slammed into Galveston. In the language of today's National Weather Service, it would be called an extreme hurricane, or X-storm. Within a few hours of making landfall, the storm had scoured vast sections of the city clean of any man-made structure, deposited towering walls of debris in other areas, and killed upward of 10,000 people. Among the dead was Isaac Cline's wife.
The Galveston storm remains the worst natural disaster ever to strike the U.S., its death toll eclipsing the combined carnage of the Johnstown Flood of 1889 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
Isaac's Storm is a fascinating look at the physics and meteorology of hurricanes (especially the X-storms that scientists say are a statistical certainty in our own future), a suspenseful re-creation of the track of the 1900 Galveston storm, and an electrifying account of the day the storm released its unfathomable fury on Galveston.
Most of all, it is
an appreciation of the human face of the tragedy, as focused in the story
of Isaac Cline, whose pride was the pride of his nation and his time,
and whose education in the unpredictable power of nature is one that if
we forget today we do so at our peril.
Published in conjunction with the City of Galveston 1900 Storm Committee.
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