Sometimes the Best Isn't Good Enough

Saturday, 11 July 1896 - Galveston, Texas

Many have asked why no one was warned in time to flee the 1900 Hurricane that devastated Galveston. Had the U.S. Weather Bureau fallen down on the job? Were they not paying attention?

The U.S. Weather Bureau has a main outpost here on Galveston Island. I decided to visit it office. The weather service is in its infancy with new offices cropping up all the time. They government has a problem with some of them being run shoddily.

Dr. Isaac Cline
Not so with this office. It appeared very business-like with a flurry of activity. The place was full of equipment, desks and five chaps in suits. A very serious-looking man of about thirty-five with a dapper mustache greeted me and introduced himself as Dr. Isaac Cline. I told him I was a freelance journalist. I wanted to do an article on the U.S. Weather Service for the folks back in England.

“Certainly, sir, you may interview me if you do not mind constant interruptions.” As if on cue, the phone rang. He talked to the person on the other end while I sat there. When he hung up, he smiled at me. “Ah, I see you are still here. You are welcome to ask me questions, but I won’t stop working.”

I told him that was quite all right, if he didn’t mind I would follow him about, observing him, until he chased me off. I asked him how he ever got interested in weather.

Cline said there hadn't been a weather service when he was a boy. He was the oldest of eight children growing up on a farm in the Smokey Mountains. His folks weren’t rich and he knew he would have to make his own way. He left home at sixteen to attend Hiwassee College in Tennessee. He had to take odd jobs to pay for his tuition. “At first I studied to be a preacher, but decided I was too prone to tell big stories. Then I considered a degree in law, but learned I was not good at evading facts. I needed a career where I could tell big stories and tell the truth.”

General William Hazen
The US Weather Service started out as a part of the Army Signal Corp. The Chief Signal Officer General William Hazen envisioned a troop of college-trained personnel commissioned into the US Army. Hazen contacted college presidents, asking them to recommend likely candidates. J.H. Bruner asked Cline, who now had a Master’s degree but no real direction, if he would be interested. “I jumped at the chance!”

The Signal Corp was part of the Calvary, so Cline was taught horsemanship. Then he had to learn how to signal with flags, torches and heliographs. He not only had to study how to send a telegraph, but how to repair and setup one, too.

That was just the beginning. The recruits were taught everything then known about meteorology by the top experts of the day. The courses came at them so fast and furious that many could not keep up.

Weather stations were opening up faster than they could be filled. One day the recruits were all given a tough exam. The top sixteen, with the highest grades, would be sent out as assistants with high probability of advancement in the near future. Cline came out 16th highest and was sent to Little Rock, Arkansas.

“I had to take measurements and weather observations several times a day from five in the morning until eleven at night. I also had to decipher raw data telegraphed from Washington and write up bulletins for the farmers and businessmen. I also did a study on the local locust outbreak and how that might be affected by weather. Luckily for the farmers, the plague ended. Unlucky for me, because I then got bored.”

“Bored?” I asked. “I would think working eighteen hours a day would be exhausting.”

“It wasn’t hard labor. There was a lot of free time in between. I had heard stories of how some lads put that free time to shady endeavors. I wanted to do something that would be useful. The office was only three blocks from one of the best medical schools in the country. The effects of weather and climate on health and medicine had had very little research. I decided that would be a good avenue of pursuit. So I got a medical degree.”

Becoming a doctor seemed an extravagant hobby to me. “Have you been able to do much research?”

Cline then told me all about the course he taught on Medical Climatology at Texas Medical College here in Galveston. In 1893 he gave thirty lectures, the first fifteen being on the science of Meteorology since his class was medical students. The next fifteen being on how weather affects certain diseases and body functions. He was quite excited because he was preparing his lectures to be published as a textbook later this year. “When I was a boy a read Jules Verne. I decided someday I would write a book on a science subject that would help mankind.”

Checking my history files later I found out that this coming November his finished manuscript and his reference material will all be lost when his house burns down. Undaunted he will start over, just to have the second manuscript swept out to sea.

After Little Rock, Cline’s next assignment was in a tiny weather station in Concho, Texas, where he not only headed it, but was also the staff. The office was in a cottage that was also his living quarters. It was decided moving the office to the growing city of Abilene made more sense.

“That’s where I met Cora May. She is the most beautiful, brilliant and cultured woman I have ever known. She could have had any man, but she wanted me.” Cline pointed to a framed photo he had on his desk of a woman with three young girls. His serious expression softened as he picked it up. It was evident the man was madly in love with his wife.

In 1889 the Signal Corp decided to setup an office in the booming city of Galveston and make it the head of the Texas Section of the US Weather Service. In 1891 the Weather Service was switched from the Army to the Department of Agriculture, becoming the US Weather Bureau.

Cline said he liked Galveston. Besides teaching at the Texas Medical College, he also taught Sunday School and just this year got a Doctor of Philosophy degree from AddRan Male and Female College. His younger brother, Joseph, had come to join him as an assistant four years ago. He has been living with Cline and his family. He said his brother showed real promise and was a diligent worker.

A typical weather Bureau office in the 1890s
Cline then went into detail about what he and his assistants did to predict the weather. He showed me some of the instruments. He said one of their major duties is to predict storms coming into land. I asked him if he thought Galveston might be hit by a hurricane sometime in the future.

He laughed at the idea. “Galveston doesn’t get tropical cyclones. We get with high winds and rain, but no cyclones. Besides the Gulf has a long slope. Any incoming surf would be broken up and made less dangerous. Even if we did get a storm pushing a high surf or a storm tide, this water would simply flow past Galveston into the bay behind the island and into the Texas Prairie. I know a few years back there was a big discussion about whether or not to build a seawall. I wrote the editor of the Galveston News and assured him it would be a waste of money. Anyone who believes otherwise is the victim of an absurd delusion.”

I managed not to show any emotion at that statement. If I hadn’t known the future, I think his argument would have convinced me. The truth is he has never seen a hurricane or the destruction it is capable of. Few in Galveston have.

And that was the problem on 8 September 1900. According to all the reports Cline got, according to all his equipment, this squall was just a tropical storm. There would be some wind damage, but that was nothing new. By the time it became evident this was a hurricane bearing down on them, all the bridges had been washed away. So he hoisted the hurricane flags without Washington’s permission, an action that could have cost him his job.

It wasn’t the wind that destroyed Galveston, it was the storm surge. Water came rushing from the Gulf like an overflowing bathtub, flooding the entire island. Ironically the few buildings that survived were saved by the hurricane itself. Homes closer to shore were shoved inland forming their own sort of seawall for a lucky few. Even so, every building suffered some damage.

Cline will build his new home next year to survive any storm. What it won’t survive is the iron trestle that the waves will slam into it. His house, his family, and his fifty neighbors seeking refuge in his home will become part of the flotsam.

Cora May and the girls
The rushing water will nearly drown him. When he finds the surface he’ll discover his youngest daughter, then six, and save her. They will cling to debris until by a miracle he will find a makeshift raft with his brother and two other daughters on it. Joseph will have jumped out of the window of the house, but not without first grabbing his two eldest nieces, then 11 and 12. They never do find Cora May. She and her unborn child are swept out to sea to become one of the 6,000 to 12,000 fatalities.

Despite physical injury and emotional trauma, both Isaac and Joseph will show up for work on the 9th as soon as the water resides. They will finally give in to their injuries and be hospitalized. The Bureau will praise Isaac Cline for going against orders to hoist the hurricane flag which did save some lives. As a reward, Isaac Cline was sent to New Orleans to head the new regional office.

In 1903 he will get in trouble with his superiors by issuing a warning that the Mississippi River would rise 21 feet in the next few weeks. They told him it was nonsense. It rose 20.7 feet. The Bureau was livid, but Louisiana would not let them reassign him. After predicting another flood in 1912 and saving many lives, the new Bureau head told him to issue all the warnings he wanted.

Isaac M. Cline award
Cline made a study of hurricanes, accurately predicting the 1915 one that hit New Orleans, saving thousands of lives. He wrote a book in 1926 called Tropical Cyclones with all the research he had gathered. He even predicted the Great Flood of 1927 two weeks ahead of time. Dr. Isaac Cline is considered one of the great pioneers of Meteorology with 53 years of service. Starting in 1999 the US Weather Bureau will give out an annual award to employees for exceptional contributions. It is their highest honor. They will call it the Isaac M. Cline Award.

Few in Galveston blamed Isaac Cline for not warning them in time. It wasn’t like he was derelict in his duties. How many in Galveston would have taken a warning seriously if he had issued it? They might not have had Cline’s equipment, but they had eyes. At first it looked like any other tropical storm. No one remembered a hurricane hitting Galveston.

What if he had advocated a seawall before the storm? Would that have saved Galveston? Maybe not. I’m sure it would have been much lower than the 17 foot wall they built after the 1900 storm. And even that won’t be high enough to hold back Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Some call Isaac Cline a villain for having the hubris to trust science. Some call Isaac Cline a hero for doing what he could. The truth is Isaac Cline will be just another victim of the 1900 Storm. He will spend the rest of his life studying hurricanes so the Galceston tragedy would never be repeated.

And now I nurse a cup of tea, remembering that photo of Cora May. And remembering all the other lost souls yet to be.


  1. This is so sad! And to think that humanity, in those days as now, sought to villanize a man, just to have a scapegoat.

  2. Indeed, sometimes the villain is just a force of nature. Hurricanes are an destructive monster that seem to pop up out of nowhere and can change their path at will. Even a hundred years later, with satellites and instant communication, hurricanes did not always behave as predicted.

    I think we should be more lenient with Isaac Cline who was doing the best he could with what he had.


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