The Deadliest Storm

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It has been awfully quiet in the deep salt--until now. Hurricane season officially started on June 1, but till last week, the Atlantic produced only one tropical storm--a humble one named Arlene. Last weekend, however, the hurricane named Bret appeared on the Gulf of Mexico, and the tropical storm called Cindy gained intensity in the eastern Atlantic, off the Cape Verde Islands, where many storms are seeded. The dangerous Cape Verde season is now under way, and from here on the odds of hurricanes forming will increase daily until Sept. 9, historically the day of greatest hurricane activity. As in past years, most of us will watch the approach of these storms snug in the belief that satellites, reconnaissance aircraft and computers have so defanged hurricanes that none can ever again cause large-scale death.

Ninety-nine years ago, a weatherman named Isaac Monroe Cline, the chief meteorologist in Galveston, Texas, espoused a similar view regarding the threat hurricanes posed to Galveston, which in his day was a lovely, gleaming city that seemed destined to become the New York of the Gulf. Cline, the lead character in Isaac's Storm, a new book by TIME contributor Erik Larson, embodied the hubris of the past turning of the century. A pioneering weatherman, he thought he knew all there was to know about the behavior of storms. In an article in the Galveston News, he told readers no hurricane could ever seriously harm the city. To believe otherwise, he wrote, was to entertain "an absurd delusion." Early on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 8, 1900, Cline had a change of heart. He stood on the Galveston beach timing the arrival of deep-ocean swells larger than anything he had seen before. He did not fully understand their meaning, just that something extraordinary seemed about to occur. He was correct.

Before the next dawn, a monumental hurricane would kill 8,000 people in Galveston alone, and become the nation's deadliest natural disaster, its death toll far greater than the combined tolls of the Johnstown flood and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Yet, incredibly, the storm would fall from national recollection and take up residence mainly in the nightmares of hurricane experts, many of whom believe that someday, maybe next month, maybe next year, an intense hurricane will again kill on a grand scale. The Galveston hurricane, the experts agree, is a storm to remember.

It began as a platte of tortured air slipping from west africa. Scores of such "easterly waves" exit the continent every summer. Most fail to intensify, but a few become carousels of "deep convection," huge thunderstorms, rotating counterclockwise over the sea.

For the first week of its existence, the hurricane was barely a tropical storm. A few ship captains spotted it as it moved along a shallow arc just below the Tropic of Cancer, but none saw it as terribly ominous. In the absence of radio or wireless telegraphy, captains knew only the weather in their immediate vicinity. None could know that just a few hundred miles away, the wind was blowing in exactly the opposite direction, a juxtaposition that any captain today would recognize as the early dance of a tropical cyclone.

The seas were hot. The land was hot. Throughout much of the U.S., temperatures had risen into the 90s and often broke 100. Heat suffused a vast swath of country from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, territory that in that time encompassed most of America's population. There was no air conditioning. Everyone suffered. Suits were black wool. Carriages had black canvas tops, black-enameled bodies. Trains were ovens. Passengers roasted. In New York City, three children died when they fell from fire escapes where they had hoped to find a breeze. A strange migration of crickets overwhelmed Waco, Texas, and halted its trolleys. Lightning struck more people than ever before. So far that year there had been no hurricanes to cool the surface by roiling the seas and raising cold water from below. The steaming Gulf was like a pool of gasoline waiting for a meteorological match.

In Washington officials of the U.S. Weather Bureau suffered too, as they continued their struggle to build credibility and overcome past errors and scandals. The bureau was just emerging from 20 years of trouble and ridicule. It had miscalled two deadly blizzards. Its chief financial manager had embezzled a fortune. Its weather observers had been implicated in sex scandals, grave robbing and other sordid matters. To prevent further embarrassment, the bureau had banned the word tornado, for fear that if used in forecasts, it would cause too much panic. In the belief that centralized control of forecasts reduced the risk of error, the bureau insisted that all storm warnings come only from headquarters. Any observer who broke that rule risked his career.

To help predict hurricanes, the bureau had strung a necklace of weather stations throughout the Caribbean, but the network's imperious officers seemed more intent on alienating the people of Cuba and the West Indies than in watching for signs of danger. They treated Cuban weathermen as if they were aboriginal witch doctors, even though Cuban scientists had pioneered the art of hurricane prediction and were revered by the citizenry. Deep down, the U.S. observers feared the Cubans and their skill, and in the summer of 1900 engineered a ban within Cuba of any telegram that so much as mentioned the weather, unless it came from the bureau--this during hurricane season, when all of Cuba looked to its homegrown weathermen for advice and comfort. The ban occurred as the tropical storm spun toward Cuba.

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