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Galveston Monthly

Isaac Cline - After the Storm

Mar 11, 2019 06:24AM

Most Galvestonians are familiar with the story of Dr. Isaac Cline, the meteorologist who headed the Island’s weather office during the 1900 Storm. As famous as that chapter of this life was, few know what became of him afterward.

  Prior to arriving in Galveston, Cline had already established a reputation as a gifted forecaster, even founding the Abilene weather station in October 1885. In March of 1889, he and his wife and children moved to Galveston, a city to which his name would forever be linked. One month later, he successfully predicted the rupture of the Colorado River dam in Austin, saving countless lives.  

 His skills were not infallible, however. A delay in grasping the imminent danger posed by the September 1900 hurricane resulted in failure to receive cooperation from the central Weather Bureau office in Washington D. C. to declare a state of emergency to the public. In desperation and against instruction from his superiors, Cline rode along the beach and lower elevations in a buggy to warn residents to move to higher ground before returning to his own home and family. Unfortunately many did not heed his warnings, because the weather in the hours previous to the storm had been especially beautiful.

  Storm waters rose in Cline’s home, like so many others across the Island, but although he and his brother were able to heroically save his children, Cline’s pregnant wife was killed by falling debris. She is buried in Galveston’s Lakeview Cemetery.

 New Orleans

  The National Weather Bureau went through major changes after the turn of the 20th century, establishing the first regional weather forecast centers outside of the headquarters in Washington, D.C. A San Francisco center was charged with forecasting for the Pacific Coast, and a Chicago location for the Great Lakes and the Midwest. The final addition was in charge of the Gulf Coast, initially comprised of Texas and Oklahoma but soon expanded to include Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Northern Florida.

  Isaac Cline was selected to head this last station which was originally located in Galveston. The new position raised his annual salary from $200 to $2000.

  Under pressure from Louisiana officials, Weather Bureau Chief Willis L. Moore quietly transferred the office to New Orleans. Had publicity been allowed prior to the move, the powerful Texas congressional delegation at the time would most likely have moved to stop it. Many people, Cline included, felt that his transfer to New Orleans was a punishment for independent actions during the Galveston hurricane and because Moore felt his position as bureau chief was threatened by Cline’s forecasting abilities.

  In early August 1901, Cline and his three daughters Rosemary, Allie, and Esther moved to the Crescent City, where he would serve as district forecaster and eventually the principal meteorologist. One year later, he married Margaret C. Hayes, and he and his daughters moved into her home on Prytania Street.

 Disaster Averted

  Luckily for Louisiana, Cline brought an expertise in flood forecasting to New Orleans. As soon as he arrived in the city, he established a study of flood causes and conditions to create a baseline to more accurately identify circumstances that would cause such disasters.

  In February 1903, his studies were put to the test when heavy rains foretold dangerous conditions on the Mississippi River. On March 9, without permission of the bureau chief, Cline issued warnings of an impending record flood stage of 21 feet in New Orleans during the following three to four weeks, and encouraged the construction of a temporary levee extension.

  He was ordered by superiors to lift the warnings but refused, responding, “Is it not better to warn people of approaching disaster sufficiently in advance to enable them to prepare to meet it than to let them be caught unprepared?”

  Cline’s decision saved lives. Flood waters rose to 20.7 feet, a height other experts had denied were possible, and the levee broke. The disaster would surely have been worse without Cline’s warnings, and the public celebrated him.

  His supervisors conveniently failed to mention this fact in damage reports after the event. Instead, they planned to remove Cline from his position to save embarrassment on their part. Nine months later, Cline received an official communication that his forecasts were not up to acceptable standards and as a result, he was being transferred to Honolulu. Only the intervention of the Louisiana congressional delegation saved him from the transfer.

  In March 1913, Bureau Chief Moore resigned under pressure and was replaced. 

Another Hurricane

  Among Cline’s most successful forecasts was that of an approaching hurricane in 1915. This particular storm possessed the highest wind velocities yet measured on the Gulf Coast: 140 miles per hour. Nearly every building in New Orleans sustained damage, but surprisingly, only 279 lives were lost, many of those at sea, thanks to the Bureau's storm warnings.

  After the storm, the New Orleans Times-Picayune commented, "The intensity of the storm...proved the worthiness of Dr. I.M. Cline...Never before, perhaps in the history of the Weather Bureau, have such general warnings been disseminated as were sent out by the local bureau in reference to the disturbance that passed over New Orleans Wednesday evening." Cline was achieving hero status in the Mississippi Delta.

 

Great Mississippi Flood

  Cline's final great professional achievement came when he successfully predicted flood stages two weeks prior to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, one of the greatest floods in American history.

  The meteorologist became furious when his warnings were not printed in the local papers, and called reporters into his office to explain. He learned that publishers refused to print them due to pressure over concern of bad publicity for New Orleans commerce.   

  Despite the available knowledge that the city may be in the path of one of its greatest disasters, few citizens knew about the danger. Cline approached the local censorship committee, threatening that if they did not release the warnings through the press he would use other channels to distribute them. The move succeeded in getting the warnings posted.

  As a result of his insistence, the New Orleans Item Tribune printed an article on July 3 entitled "Doctor Cline, Unsung Hero of Big Flood." In it, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover referred to Cline as a genius.

  "Too much credit cannot be given Dr. Cline for the work he has done. His flood forecasts have been absolutely uncanny in their accuracy, he has without a doubt saved the lives of thousands of people with these bulletins." 

 Love Of Art

  From the time he moved to New Orleans, Cline began pursuing a collection of art and antiques and spending his free time restoring them. In his memoir entitled “Storms, Floods and Sunshine” he shares, “Choice paintings and other works of art appealed to me. I bought paintings, porcelains, bric-a-brac, and small pieces of furniture soon after my arrival…as a hobby.” He often broke up his annual leave time into half days, enabling him to attend local auctions and estate sales.

  Local families who wanted to dispose of old family art collections often went to Cline first, due to his reputation for fair pricing. He restored many of the paintings himself, and resold them to make money to purchase others.

  Their shared love of art was probably largely what drew Cline and his second wife to each other. Having amassed a sizable collection of her own before their marriage, the probate of her will in 1928 listed specific instructions concerning several artists’ works. She willed her extensive collection of paintings to her brother and sister with the exception of her paintings by Keith, which went to Cline.

  In 1929, Cline found a portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Frank Carpenter in an obscure repository of antiques in Washington. After purchasing it, he acted on what he referred to as a “hunch” and carefully scraped off excess paint applied to the surface of the piece by an unknown artist. His restoration resulted in one of the best-known portraits of Lincoln which he then loaned to the Cabildo in New Orleans.

 

The Art House

  His remaining years with the Bureau were comparatively quiet, but he retained a place of respect in the community. It is said that locals used to watch the grey-haired gentleman walk from his home in the French Quarter to the bureau office to see if he carried an umbrella. Local lore credits him with the saying, “Don’t put rain in the forecast until it starts, and don’t take it out until it stops.”

  At age 75 in 1935, Cline petitioned to extend his career, but was forced to retire after 53 years of service. He was fond of saying that he was older than the Weather Bureau. Though he begrudgingly accepted retirement, it provided him with the time to dedicate to his love of art. In 1936 he opened a small art and antique shop at 633 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter called “The Art House.”

  Specializing in Early American portraits and Chinese bronzes, the pursuit made him a wealthy man. In addition to collecting artwork, he continued his work restoring paintings and antique glassware in the studio as well. Cline was the first to admit that his hobby was as much inspired by the connections it provided him to the upper levels of society as the sheer love of the work itself. He became a fixture of the French Quarter, known for his warm smile and welcoming handshake.

  The scientist did not leave his dedication to weather entirely in the past. In addition to continuing his meteorological work, he published a scientific monograph entitled “A Century of Progress in the Study of Cyclones.” It was considered one of the most important works of its kind at the time.

  In 1953, Cline became very ill and had to sell his beloved Art House. Dr. Isaac Cline passed away on August 3, 1955 at the age of 94 as a new hurricane approached the gulf. His brother Dr. Joseph L. Cline, who survived the 1900 Storm by his side, died five days later.

   Dr. Isaac Cline is buried in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans in a plot belonging to the family of one of his daughters. No headstone bears his name or hints to the incredible man who rests there.