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'Isaac's Storm' a cautionary tale for the new century

Erik Larson's book "Isaac's Storm" chronicles the events of the devastating Galveston, Texas, hurricane in 1900
Erik Larson's book "Isaac's Storm" chronicles the events of the devastating Galveston, Texas, hurricane in 1900  

In this story:

Not a disaster book

A lesser-known catastrophe

RELATED STORIES, SITES Downward pointing arrow

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Isaac Cline was a legend around Galveston, Texas -- the weatherman who, as the story went, recognized a big storm was coming, warned the town's residents, and helped save thousands of lives.

But writer Erik Larson wanted a fresh angle for his book on America's deadliest hurricane, and was inclined to dismiss the rather hackneyed tale of heroism.

CNN's John Zarrella reports on the stormy past of Galveston, Texas

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The Galveston Hurricane

Excerpt: 'Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History'

Chat with 'Isaac's Storm' author Erik Larson
Friday, September 8, 4 p.m. EDT

Then one day, in a small government library outside Washington, D.C., he stumbled across a newspaper article that Cline had written several years before the September 8, 1900, hurricane. In it, Cline boldly declared a cyclone could never seriously damage the city, and that anyone who thought otherwise was delusional.

"When I read that," Larson said in a telephone interview, "I realized that maybe this guy was not quite the hero history has made him out to be."

Larson proceeded to write "Isaac's Storm," a 1999 best-seller centering on the tragically misguided meteorologist who, in fact, failed to forecast the storm that would kill more than 6,000 people.

Not a disaster book

The author, whose work is getting renewed attention as the nation marks the hurricane's 100th anniversary, insists "Isaac's Storm" is not, first and foremost, a disaster book. Rather, it's a cautionary tale about an era in which great technological progress created a flawed sense of invincibility.

"The broader message is that technological hubris will always get you in trouble with nature," Larson said.

As scientists forge ahead in decoding man's genetic makeup, among other breakthroughs, the message remains just as relevant.

"We do have the power to cause some dangerous shifts in the world around us that can really hurt us," he said.


Although modern meteorologists enjoy an array of powerful forecasting tools, Larson said Americans should be careful about assuming there won't be another Big One on the scale of Galveston, according to the top hurricane experts he interviewed.

"To a man, they said we are very concerned about the complacency that these tools can bring, and each has a nightmare disaster that they say could happen one day that could take hundreds if not thousands of deaths," he said.

A lesser-known catastrophe

Larson was drawn to the story of the hurricane, which virtually destroyed the growing Galveston area, because he had never heard much about it. Even though it was more destructive than either the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, both have become more prominent cultural icons.

He suggests Texas' relative remoteness from the United States, and perhaps Galveston's own desire to put the storm behind it, may have played a role in that, but that the answer may lie somewhat deeper.

"I think on some level a storm like this was such a dark event that something this dramatic and this awful, in 1900 national psyche couldn't get around it," he said.

"Isaac's Storm," which recently was released in paperback, joins "Into Thin Air" and "The Perfect Storm" on a growing list of recent best-sellers capturing the ferocity of Mother Nature. With a nod to Jack London, Larson notes that the trend is nothing new.

"This ageless theme of man against the elements," he said, "is one of the most powerful and compelling of all literary time."

The actual 'Perfect Storm': A perfectly dreadful combination of nature's
June 30, 2000
The promise and perils of the human genome
June 27, 2000
Author recounts 'the deadliest hurricane in history'
August 25, 1999
Big winds in Texas history
August 22, 1999

Isaac's Storm
The Storm That Changed America: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900
Galveston Historical Foundation: The 1900 Storm
Johnstown Flood National Memorial
1906 San Francisco Earthquake

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