As Ike bears down on his namesake’s home state of Texas, it behooves us to remember what Ari wrote a few days back.  The only element absent from Ari’s post was the reaction of the rest of the country.  The first chapter of Erik Larson’s excellent recreation of Galveston’s last hours, Isaac’s Storm, reads:

TELEGRAM

Washington, D.C.
Sept. 9, 1900
To: Manager, Western Union
Houston, Texas

Did you hear anything about Galveston?

Willis L. Moore

We already know the answer—in 1900, everyone was confused.  On Wednesday, September 4th, the Louisville-based Christian Observer reported that “all the great damage done to the roads [in Puerto Rico] by the hurricane of August 8, 1899, has been repaired.”[1] By the time anyone read that article, the pluperfect had supplanted the perfect: another nameless storm had already slammed into the island and re-destroyed its infrastructure. The New York Times tracked the storm in its daily weather bulletins:

For those of you with eyes like mine, I’ll transcribe the important bits:

September 5: “The tropical storm was moving over Western Cuba in a northerly direction last night, and had increased somewhat in intensity. It has thus far caused rains through a portion of Cuba, and brisk to high northeasterly winds, which have extended as far north as Jupiter, Fla.”

September 6: “The tropical storm was central last night near Key West, Fla., and has increased greatly in intensity. It has caused northeast gales over Southern Florida, and is moving slowly northward. The storm will cause high winds and general rains over the eastern portion of the country, and will probably terminate the high temperature period.”

It’s in poor taste to mock forecasts before the Live StormTrack 8000 Triple Doppler Radar Slaves™ made it to Moline, so I won’t say a word—I’ll italicize theirs instead:

September 7: “The tropical storm continued slowly northwestward, and was apparently central last night over the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and has still a tendency toward a northwesterly direction.

Note how on September 6th, “The Weather” columnist—for the sake of clarity, I’ll pretend one person’s responsible—confidently declares the storm’s “moving slowly northward.” He’s pinpointed the speed and direction of the storm and stated them in no uncertain terms. Now, note how on September 7th, this same person rewrites the history it mis-predicted: saying the storm “continued slowly northwestward” creates the impression it has been and “still” is headed “northwesterly.” But it hasn’t and it ain’t. It’s “apparently” headed northwesterly now, but under what or whose power?  Where before the storm moved, now it exhibits a “tendency” to intercardinal “directions.”

As you’ve no doubt guessed, “The Weather” is not the kind of column that requires flair. The tone of a typical column resembles a bureaucrat’s notion of a copy-editor who writes with the brio of a type-setter.  The party (or parties) who composed “The Weather” were, after all, forced to translate the daily bulletin compiled by The Divison of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce and Agriculture. If you spy an emphasis on property and capital over, say, life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness in the title of what would become the National Weather Service, you’ll probably be upset when I tell you the division was housed in the Department of War.[2] The party responsible for “The Weather” would’ve had to possess the talents of a Faulkner to add flair to atmospheric data that’d been observed and recorded by career military men who suddenly found their lives dedicated to the preservation of capital, cattle, and wheat.

I belabor the obvious here because the tonal shift from prophetic and brash to pathetic and brittle points to the fundamental insecurity of the science-oriented mind circa 1900. I discuss this at obscene length in my Wharton chapter, but I don’t want to think about that any more than you want to read it, so I’ll tuck a summary of it in a footnote and truck on.[3] The other reason I’d rather avoid Wharton is that three days before Galveston was Gomorrah’d, The Chautauquan published an essay that could explain why “The Weather” sounded so rattled on September 7th: every other day the data compiled was evidence, as the essayist put it, that the world had shrunk.

“Up to yesterday,” Jack London wrote, “communication for any distance beyond the sound of the human voice or the sight of the human eye was bound up with locomotion.” You didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blew—an observer with military discipline would suffice—but as the events of September 9th proved, you did need one to compile those wind patterns into a weather system. The folks at “The Weather” weren’t up to the task and lost a hurricane. It may be the case, as London claimed, that “[t]he telegraph annihilates space and time[, such that] each morning every part [of the world] knows what every other part is thinking, contemplating, or doing.” This nameless storm would expose the limitations of scientific-optimism: it doesn’t matter how many times a day every part of the world communicates with every other part if everyone’s blinkered by pride.

If those who read The Chautauquan on the first of September joined London in laughing at the “play-ball this planet of ours [has] become,” they were no doubt as shocked as London was when, one week later, the planet reminded its children of the difference between a play-ball and ball in play, against which “[a]ll the shrewd contrivances and safeguards of man [could be] thrown out of gear.”

Meanwhile, “The Weather” thought it had found the weather:

September 8: “The tropical storm was central last evening off the Louisiana coast. During yesterday wind velocities ranging from 30 to 56 miles an hour from the northeast were reported along the Gulf Coast from Pensacola to New Orleans . . . . The indications are that more moderate temperatures will prevail over the eastern part of the country during the next two days, and the Gulf storm will advance northward, attended by rain in the Southern States today and in the Central and Eastern States tomorrow.”

What were these “indications” that the storm would move “northward”?   Doesn’t matter. Galveston fell silent early September 9th. “The Weather” choked out four worthless words before following suit:

Jack London’s shrunken planet had unshrunk and swallowed a city. In his essay, London had chided Homer for failing to recognize how small the Greek planet had been:

What a tremendous affair it was, the world of Homer, with its indeterminate boundaries, vast regions, and immeasurable distances. The Mediterranean and the Euxine were illimitable stretches of ocean waste over which years could be spent in endless wandering. On their mysterious shores were the improbable homes of impossible peoples.

On September 9th, the distance between civilization to Galveston was immeasurable. Its shores were littered with the improbable homes and newly impossible people:

And an incredulous Los Angeles Times had no explanation, and for comfort turned to the one London had dismissed:

This nameless storm reminded the new world of the old one’s power, and in this respect, I’m a little annoyed with Erik Larson.  Isaac’s Storm is a work of brilliance—stands tall there on my shelf next to John McPhee and looks none the worse for it—but at some unnoticed moment this afternoon, everyone started referring to the unchristened beast of 1900 as “Isaac’s Storm.” For so many reasons, most admittedly aesthetic, this bothers me. How’s a beast to slouch anywhere if everyone knows its name?


[1] “Porto Rico.” Christian Observer 4 September 1900: 88.

[2] If it helps any, the third and fourth sections of the unit’s official history are likely plagiarized.

[3] In “The Ambivalent Naturalist: The Authority of Evolutionary Rhetoric in Edith Wharton’s ‘The Descent of Man’ and The House of Mirth,” I contend that Wharton’s fictions struggle against a singular evolutionary theory—the pessimistic environmental determinism Donald Pizer and Carol Miller claim is operative in The House of Mirth (1905). Wharton identifies Darwin and Spencer as formative influences. As evidenced in her short story “The Angel at the Grave” (1901), her careful study of their work allowed her to clear what she calls “that old metaphysical lumber” from her mental landscape. Like many of her contemporaries, Wharton’s metaphysical unmooring forced her to turn to science for answers to social questions religion and tradition one provided; unlike many of her contemporaries, however, she thought herself unequipped to adjudicate between competing evolutionary claims. In “The Descent of Man” (1903), she not only details the dangers of extrapolating from one school of evolutionary thought for the moral benefit of a popular audience, she also demonstrates the extent to which scientific discourse was speculative. To those who sought her advice, she would recommend Vernon Kellogg’s notoriously equivocal Darwinism Today (1907), which aimed to familiarize “the student and general reader wishing to understand and compare the general characteristics and significance of the various new theories of species-forming with whose names, such as heterogenesis, orthogenesis, metakinesis, geographic isolation, biologic isolation, organic selection, or orthoplasty, he occasionally meets in his general reading.” Familiar with—but unable to determine the comparative validity of—these various evolutionary theories, Wharton chose to dramatize their competing claims in The House of Mirth: Lily Bart is presented as a tableau upon which the other characters in the novel can speculate as to the nature of the forces acting upon her. No final determination as to the evolutionary cause of Lily Bart’s demise can be established because the scientific community had not (and would not for another forty years) reach a consensus as to the mechanism of evolution. She offers the plight of Lily Bart not to illustrate the validity of a particular evolutionary theory, but as an experiment in evolutionary speculation in which documenting the dismal niceties of American high society will provide evidence for future social anthropologists who know what she and her contemporaries could not: which evolutionism would prove scientifically valid.

[4] London’s writing about the 1906 San Fransisco earthquake, but the sentiment strikes a humble note.