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Surveying the destruction in Galveston, Texas, after a hurricane wreaked havoc on the town in September 1900

Author recounts 'the deadliest hurricane in history'

August 25, 1999
Web posted at: 4:50 p.m. EDT (2050 GMT)

(CNN) -- With a hurricane lurking off Florida and Hurricane Bret fresh in the minds of Texans, weather is the hot topic as summer turns into fall.

In his new book, "Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History," Erik Larson tells the story of the greatest hurricane ever to hit American shores.

Based on interviews with storm survivors and the letters, telegrams and reports of Texas' chief weatherman Isaac Cline, Larson walks his readers through the events of September 8, 1900: the day 8,000 people died in a hurricane in Galveston, Texas.

According to Larson, Cline was the one man who could have saved the people of Galveston. But Cline considered the notion that a hurricane could damage the city where he was based "an absurd delusion."

"He embodied the hubris that so marked the last turn of the century when America believed it could do whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted, and could even override nature," Larson says.

On September 8, 1900, Cline watched the ocean swells, noting their timing, size and shape, not realizing the magnitude of the storm he was seeing.

As the book recounts:

"In Cuba, America's overconfidence was made all too obvious by the Weather Bureau's obsession with controlling hurricane forecasts, even though Cuba's indigenous weathermen had pioneered hurricane science. As the bureau's forecasters assured the nation that all was calm in the Caribbean, Cuba's own weathermen fretted about ominous signs in the sky. A curious stillness gripped Antigua. Only a few unlucky sea captains discovered that the storm had achieved an intensity no man alive had ever experienced.

"In Galveston, reassured by Cline's belief that no hurricane could seriously damage the city, there was celebration. Children played in the rising water. Hundreds of people gathered at the beach to marvel at the fantastically tall waves and gorgeous pink sky -- until the surf began ripping the city's beloved beachfront apart. Within the next few hours Galveston would endure a hurricane that to this day remains the nation's deadliest natural disaster."

When it was over, the dead numbered twice that of the combined deaths from the Johnstown flood and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"Isaac's Storm" traces Cline's steps on the day of the storm, introduces some notable 1900 Galveston figures and tells of the political wranglings of the time, including sex scandals and embezzlement by those started the U.S. Weather Bureau.

Through accounts Larson learned from storm survivors, he tells how the city coped in the storm's aftermath. Galveston was devastated by the disaster, and according to Larson, in some ways has never recovered.

Transporting bodies that were victims of the storm

"Maybe I'm imagining it, but I sense a deep seam of sorrow in Galveston for the way things have turned out. It was such a glittering little city in 1900, with the promise of becoming another San Francisco or New Orleans," Larson says.

"Now the city's most treasured landmarks are those that existed before the storm. The city has gone from one that looked forward to one that sees its happiest times in the past."

Larson says he was drawn in part to this story because he is a "foul-weather junkie," but he also liked the fresh perspective it offers on turn-of-the-century America.

"It showed how people really lived, how their homes looked, how communications and transportation really worked," he says. "It also shed light on America's long fascination, even obsession, with weather, one still evident today in the passion with which people watch the Weather Channel, especially in hurricane season."

"Isaac's Storm" is published by Crown. Larson's previous books include "The Naked Consumer" and "Lethal Passage." He is a regular contributor to Time Magazine.


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RELATED SITES:
Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History
Random House: Crown
Tropical Prediction Center/National Hurricane Center
Hurricanes: online meteorology guide
CNN: Storm Center
Interactive Weather Information Network
FEMA -- Tropical Storm and Hurricane Watch Information
State of Texas Web Site - Texas Counties
Texas Department of Public Safety
Handbook of Texas Online: Falfurrias, Texas
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