Tuesday, September 30, 2008

54. Isaac's Storm

by Erik Larson
read by Richard M. Davidson or Edward Herrmann

This is a book about Isaac Cline, the chief meteorologist for the US Weather Bureau in Galveston during the devastating 1900 hurricane, as well as the storm itself, which killed at least 6,000.

I'd purchased it in abridged audiobook format (read by actor Edward Herrmann) for my workplace, and also found the print version and an unabridged audiobook (read by actor Richard M. Davidson) at the public library. I decided to listen to it after Hurricane Ike ravaged Galveston earlier this month. I thought it rather interesting that Ike is a nickname for Isaac.

I generally prefer unabridged versions so I started with that. Unfortunately, this copy was on cassette, and the 2nd and 4th cassettes were unplayable, so I listened to the abridged versions for those portions. I have to say I prefer Herrmann's reading; he's not quite as emphatic as Davidson. A bonus for the unabridged version, though, was a lengthy interview with the author (in 2000) at the end.

An abridged version might have been better anyway, because my only complaint about the book would be too much unnecessary detail (particularly about storm formation and Isaac's early life) and some repetition. It may have just been the audiobook format in this case though, for I also found the interwoven storylines of multiple characters (all real people) a bit difficult to follow at times.

The story is at its best when the worst of the storm hits Galveston, and during the city's recovery. Larson did extensive research at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, which has a huge 1900 Storm collection with personal accounts of survivors, letters, photographs, and maps. The endnotes and bibliography take up 38 pages of the print book (the narrative is 273 pages), and at times it feels like Larson is trying to cram every bit of research into his story.

Another major source was Cline's autobiography, originally published in 1945 when Cline was 84. Self-described "historical journalist" Larson takes issue with Cline's claims in the latter book that his storm warnings saved lives, but I got the feeling that Larson was following the path of most journalists today and looking for someone to blame for a very bad storm.

There's a lot of blame too for the fledgling U.S. Weather Bureau, particularly for their apparent disregard for Cuban forecasting (which tended to predict a lot of hurricanes and thus induce panic). In my opinion, given the technology available in 1900, no one could have predicted the severity of the hurricane that demolished Galveston, and with the slower modes of transportation available in those days, an unnecessary panicked evacuation could have also been deadly (like Hurricane Rita). It's unfair to paint Cline as a villian, particularly given the personal losses (his wife and unborn child) that he endured.

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