THE HURRICANES ARE coming. In May, experts at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center forecast between three and six major Atlantic storms by the end of November, when the six-month season ends. Now — late August — is when the big ones begin (category 3 and above). So far, the prediction of an active season has come true. We’ve beaten the record for named cyclones at this point of the season.
It’s astounding that meteorologists can provide an outlook for the entire season. More impressive, and more terrifying, is how much we know about an individual hurricane, even when it’s thousands of miles away. Any day now, I predict, we’ll be glued to the Weather Channel monitoring its size, speed and strength, the definition of its eyewall, and its predicted path. We already know its name, chosen years before it formed.
Imagine a time when we didn’t have this data. When hurricanes were as unexpected as they are cruel. That’s where Eric Jay Dolin’s A Furious Sky begins, tracking the path of that knowledge — from the elemental understanding that a hurricane turns around an axis, to today’s spaghetti plot models.
Dolin, who has written histories of American whaling, the fur trade, pirates, and lighthouses, has a passion for the natural environment, which comes through in his introduction. “Hurricanes whip up the seas, generate gargantuan waves and mammoth storm surges, and pour down such diluvial quantities of water that they seem to presage the end of time.” He blends lovely writing with clear explanations of technical concepts like “storm surge” and “vertical wind shear” that a reader needs in order to understand hurricanes.
As the subtitle promises, the book starts 500 years ago, on Christopher Columbus’s fourth trip to the New World. Sailing along the shore of Hispaniola, Columbus saw signs that a hurricane was coming, and he sheltered with his men in a harbor. He tried to warn another fleet that was headed home to Spain, but the sailors ignored him. The storm sank 24 of their ships, killing nearly everyone on board.
Columbus had learned the warning signs on previous trips from the Taíno people in the Caribbean. I wish Dolin had given more of a hat tip in his book to indigenous weather forecasting methods. They place the much newer science of meteorology in context. Columbus was accused of sorcery after the hurricane he predicted struck Hispaniola.
After this engaging story, chapter one is a lull in an otherwise compelling book — a dry accounting of Europeans settling the New World while hurricanes interfered. The story picks back up when Benjamin Franklin watches what he believes are two consecutive storms. He later realizes it was just one storm: a hurricane, with winds blowing in a different direction from its forward motion. Subsequent people built on Franklin’s observations and moved us to the next logical step.
“[U]nderstanding a phenomenon and protecting oneself from it are two different things,” writes Dolin. The best preparation needs foreknowledge of trouble, and quality weather forecasting requires a distributed network of people who can communicate observations quickly. The invention of the telegraph made that possible. The Smithsonian’s network compiled weather conditions from its telegraph operators, who began their morning transmissions with “cloudy,” “fair,” “rainy,” etc. The US Army Signal Corps eventually took over from the Smithsonian, but it bungled things badly and was so plagued with scandal that it was replaced by a national civilian Weather Bureau.
Though wireless radio signals freed us from the limits of telegraph lines, the data points for reporting hurricanes at sea were scattershot — from, say, a ship that hadn’t yet fled, or an island with a weather station.
In 1943, a drinking bet led to great leap forward. Air Force pilot and instrument flight trainer Joseph B. Duckworth told his students he could fly a single-engine, two-seater plane into a hurricane. His successful mission led to today’s Hurricane Hunters, aircrews who fly into these maelstroms in planes equipped with technology for delivering data that augments satellite pictures to provide an aerial view of the swirling monstrosities.
“Seen from space,” Dolin writes, “hurricanes are one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing features in the world. Racing around the globe like downy, spinning pinwheels floating silently above the Earth, their very magnificence belies their dreadful impact on American history.”
A major thrust of A Furious Sky is the stories of individual hurricanes. Dolin takes full advantage of the time-honored character versus nature story and the natural narrative arc of a hurricane. He pulls details from newspaper coverage, journals, books, and oral histories. With active language and sharp characters, he puts us in scene, such as in the aftermath of an 1893 hurricane that hit New York City, when boys collected dead sparrows in Central Park to sell to restaurants.
Readers will form attachments to the residents of an apartment building in Pass Christian, Mississippi, who tried unsuccessfully to ride out Hurricane Camille in 1969, and to the young man with hypothermia who, during Hurricane Sandy, broke into a house for shelter, leaving a note for the owners: “Who ever reads this, I’m DIEING — I’m 28 yrs old my name is Mike. I had to break in to your house. […] I didn’t take anything.” He survived.
Dolin takes us through hurricane after hurricane. You’d think that a recounting of wrath, wreckage, and recovery would be repetitive, but A Furious Sky is far from it. Thanks to Dolin’s reporting and framing, each hurricane is a different story that delivers its own lesson about human nature.
In Galveston in 1900, the power of denial is on display. Meteorologist Isaac Cline and others convinced citizens nine years earlier that it was absurd to think that the town could be severely damaged by a hurricane. Cline happens to be the unfortunate “Isaac” in Erik Larson’s excellent book Isaac’s Storm about the Galveston Hurricane that killed at least 6,000 people — the deadliest natural disaster in US history.
Pictures, lithographs, and maps give visual depth to the narrative. We see people loading dead bodies into a truck after the 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane; train cars washed off the tracks in the Florida Keys in 1935; and Katharine Hepburn digging for valuables in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, after her family’s summer home was destroyed in 1938. The chapter “A Rogues’ Gallery” includes gripping sections on more recent hurricanes: Camille (1969), Andrew (1992), Iniki (1992), and Sandy (2012).
After reading Dolin’s catalog of destruction, the question naturally arises: How do you “solve” the problem of hurricanes? Ideas have ranged from the inspired to the desperate. Flying propeller planes clockwise around a storm to slow the winds. Putting enormous windmills on shore to blow hurricanes back out to sea. Seeding clouds with dry ice (the United States tried this in 1947 during a hurricane). Or — please, no — dropping nuclear bombs into the storms.
Hurricane Katrina is the grim star of the book. When it walloped New Orleans in 2005, it laid bare systemic denial, political indecision, a neglected infrastructure, corruption, federal incompetence, and, most of all, racial and economic disparity and injustice. Katrina turned the below-sea-level city to a bowl of pollution and floating bodies. It stranded the poorest on their rooftops. Human error, hesitation, and lack of preparation caused much unnecessary suffering. Municipal government — never Louisiana’s strength — utterly failed its citizens, as did the federal government.
Dolin covers, as he calls it, the “bones” of the Katrina story, and he does so effectively. He is smart not to populate it with tales of individual survivors. Instead, he focuses on what made the storm so disastrous and the inaction in its aftermath nearly criminal. He says what needs to be said, and refers us to where to read more.
Readers looking for in-depth treatment of Harvey, Irma, and Maria will be disappointed. Those three major hurricanes in 2017 get only summary treatment. And — spoiler alert — the book’s epilogue is “Stormy Weather Ahead.” Scientists agree that hurricanes will likely become more forceful due to global warming. Dolin writes, “[I]t will be incumbent upon us to act even more expeditiously and more boldly to counter this threat in any way we can.” He makes suggestions about how we can better prepare. But will we prepare any better as a result of our forecasting accuracy? That’s a big maybe.
I’m especially struck by two facts in the aftermath of Katrina. First, roughly half of New Orleanians moved away after the storm. The population numbers haven’t fully recovered. Second, billions of dollars were spent on engineering feats to protect New Orleans from future storms — but the levees that were strengthened and expanded are now sinking into the marsh.
Every hurricane brings unknowns, only some of which we’ve gotten better at predicting. Larger questions remain. When do we make a collective decision to abandon the most vulnerable parts of our most vulnerable coastal cities? How do we ensure the well-being of the people who can’t easily retreat?
What I took away from this book is that hurricanes force us to get straight with our relationship to the natural world and with our own denial, fallibility, and hubris. In 1954, Edward R. Murrow covered Hurricane Edna for CBS. Traveling in a Hurricane Hunter plane, he took viewers into the eye of Edna and then surveyed the damage it caused in New England.
“If a true definition of humility is ever written,” he said, “it might well be written in the eye of a hurricane.”