A tempest around "Isaac's Storm"

The bestseller's author answers a meteorologist's charges of inaccuracy.

Published September 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In a crucial scene in "Isaac's Storm," Erik Larson's bestselling history of the 1900 Galveston hurricane, meteorologist Joseph Cline warns some residents that they should evacuate before a storm hits their town. But another meteorologist -- his older brother, Isaac -- insists they should stay. The debate takes place on Sept. 8, 1900 -- shortly before the hurricane slams into the thriving Texas town and kills thousands of people in a cataclysm that remains the most fatality-heavy natural disaster in U.S. history.

"Isaac's Storm," published by Crown and currently No. 7 on the New York Times Best Seller List, takes place in an era when the field of meteorology was just getting off the ground. While weather-watchers like Isaac and Joseph Cline had a strong faith in their scientific abilities, they obviously didn't have the technology that could have blessed their forecasts with more accuracy.

Despite his failings as a scientist, it is Isaac rather than his brother who has gone down in Galveston-area legend as the Paul Revere who warned residents to leave before the hurricane raged into town. Nearly two weeks after the storm, the New York Evening Sun noted that "the warnings which were sent out by Dr. [Isaac] Cline are said to have saved thousands of lives along the coast."

But in the new book's account, Isaac is an incompetent rather than a soothsayer, misreading the fatal portents in the atmosphere. Now Larson, a Time magazine contributor who started researching his book five years ago, has run into some local resistance to his revisionist take.

Meteorologist Lew Fincher, vice president of the Houston chapter of the American Meteorological Society, thinks Larson has made Isaac a scapegoat. Fincher defends Isaac's role in the hurricane: "I think he studied everything he could. He was going by the knowledge that they had with them in the bureau."

According to "Isaac's Storm," the two brothers barely spoke after the storm; by the time they both died -- within a week of each other in 1955 -- they hadn't been in touch "for years." But Fincher says that he has read both brothers' journals and that Larson overdramatized their relationship: "I think that he was trying to come up with a personal conflict to make the book more human. I've read a lot on both of those guys, and there's nothing out of the ordinary that any brothers wouldn't have experienced."

According to Fincher, Larson neglected to read an account in a book that was published shortly after the storm, "The Story of the Galveston Flood," in which the brothers are quoted speaking of each other quite warmly. The cold, stilted tone of their letters he shrugs off as a combination of their very formal Victorian higher education and their military background. On a scientific note, he takes exception to Larson's classification of the hurricane as a Category 5 storm: "I'd call it a 4, maybe a 3." (Nevertheless, he considers Larson's book "a great read.")

Larson, however, is adamant in his insistence that his reporting is dead on. "There's pretty good evidence that the legend is not completely accurate," he said on the phone from his Seattle home. "Most likely [Isaac] did go to the beach and warn some people -- but did he warn 6,000? I don't see how that is possible." Alluding to documents he found at the National Archives, he said that two accounts point to Isaac's telling some people to stay in Galveston.

As for the strain in the brothers' relationship, Larson says that he assumed it was common knowledge and insists that he had no authorial motive to bend the truth: "It would have been an equally good story if they hadn't have been rivals, but you've got to call them as you see them." Larson says that one formidable expert, Neil Frank (whom Fincher calls "the Babe Ruth of hurricanes"), mentioned the rivalry to him. When pressed for the source of his information about the epic silence between the brothers, he referred to Frank and to an article in the Southwest Quarterly. (Neither is cited in the book as a source for the information.) Larson maintains that he, like Fincher, read the journals of both men very closely and that the tension is unmistakable. According to Larson, although Joseph endured the storm with his brother, his lengthy account of it never mentions Isaac. "It's either funny or very tragic," Larson says.

As far as his classification of the storm, Larson concedes the controversy but stands by his reasoning. "Officially it was a 4," he says. "Having spent two and a half years of intense research on this storm, I'm convinced it was a 5. The bottom line is that no one can know for sure." (After all, nobody back then had Air Force planes to monitor oncoming storms.) Larson also says that he gave the manuscript to Hugh E. Willoughby, a leader in the field of hurricane research, and Willoughby had no problem with the classification. ("Any lingering errors are entirely my fault, not his," Larson's acknowledgment notes, using the standard formula.)

The meteorological journal Weatherwise cited a host of what it deemed factual errors in "Isaac's Storm," which didn't prevent it from giving the book a rave review. Putting it in a class with Sebastian Junger's "The Perfect Storm" and Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" -- hugely popular books that have also been called into question for their accuracy - Weatherwise calls Larson's narrative "reading at its best."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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