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Isaac's Storm

A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

By Erik Larson
16-minute read
Audio available
Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson

Isaac’s Storm (1999) is a gripping account of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. Just as Galveston was becoming a world-class city, a storm arrived with little warning and crushed many of the community’s hopes and ambitions.

  • Anyone moved by the indomitable power of nature
  • Fans of historical nonfiction
  • Storm chasers

Erik Larson is an award winning author and journalist, whose writings have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine. His popular nonfiction books include In the Garden of Beasts (2011), Thunderstruck (2006), and The Devil in the White City, which won multiple awards, including the Edgar Award for best true crime writing.

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Isaac's Storm

A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

By Erik Larson
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson
Synopsis

Isaac’s Storm (1999) is a gripping account of the hurricane that devastated Galveston, Texas on September 8, 1900. Just as Galveston was becoming a world-class city, a storm arrived with little warning and crushed many of the community’s hopes and ambitions.

Key idea 1 of 10

Isaac Cline quickly rose through the ranks of the Weather Bureau to run the Galveston, Texas office.

The federal Weather Bureau started through an act of Congress in 1870. At that time it was called the Signal Corps, and its purpose was to not only provide detailed weather reports on the interior, but also for outer territories that served as bases of military operations or trade destinations. 

However, by 1882, there were problems. The chief financial manager got caught embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars, employees were found to be making up forecasts, getting drunk, and using their offices for a variety of extracurricular activities. It was a mess. What the company needed was smart, diligent employees. People like Isaac Cline.

The key message here is: Isaac Cline quickly rose through the ranks of the Weather Bureau to run the Galveston, Texas office.

Isaac grew up in Monroe County, Tennessee, a land where tornadoes and summer lightning storms offered dangerous, mysterious, and exciting displays of weather’s awesome power. Isaac always had a focus to his studies, and later his career. So when the Signal Corps sent letters to colleges, seeking potential candidates to help fill its ranks, Isaac was recommended by no less than the president of his college.

Indeed, Isaac had a keen scientific mind and was a perfect match for the Weather Bureau. He arrived for duty in Washington, D.C., on July 6, 1882, and later wrote, “. . . it was just the kind of work I wanted.” Isaac trained at Fort Myer, where he learned the telegraph code that agents used to send information around the country.

For example, “Paul diction sunk Johnson imbue hersal.” These six words actually meant: “St. Paul 29.26 inches barometric pressure, -4 degrees temperature, wind six miles per hour, maximum temperature 10 degrees, dewpoint -18 degrees. This observation was at 8:00 p.m. and the local prediction called for fair weather.”

Isaac learned this coded language, how to use and read weather monitoring equipment, and also how to send messages through the use of flags, torches, and the light and mirror technique known as heliography. He was a rising star, and was soon tasked with helping to train new recruits. He kept a tidy workstation and even found spare time to go to medical school, from which he graduated in 1885. And by 1889, he was married, with a daughter. 

In other words, he was a perfect agent. A shining example of the best the Signal Corps had to offer. The kind of agent who could help the program move past the scandals and bad reputation that had been dogging it for years. So, in 1889, Isaac was put in charge of the struggling bureau station in Galveston, Texas.

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