Hurricanes’ destructive past and fearsome future

Michael Taube

THE WASHINGTON POST – This year’s hurricane season has hit with intensity. The first Atlantic hurricane, Hanna, brought massive flooding and property damage to Texas in July, while Hurricane Isaias whipped ferociously through the eastern United States (US) in August, causing more than USD4 billion in damage. Later that month, Hurricane Laura swept into Louisiana as a deadly Category 4 storm, leaving a trail of destruction.

While calamitous, the storms are, sadly, routine. “Hurricanes have been churning up ocean waters and slamming into land for all of recorded history,” historian Eric Jay Dolin wrote in A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes. They have killed about 30,000 people since the late 19th Century in the US and since 1980 “have accounted for roughly 50 per cent of the cost of all (US) natural disasters that exceeded USD1 billion in damage,” according to Dolin. Hurricanes, he concluded, are “an integral, inevitable, and painful part of the American experience.” The storms force us “to confront thorny questions of how we can learn to survive and adapt to the continued barrage.”

The violent weather systems wreaked havoc on early explorers. When Christopher Columbus reached the New World in 1492, “he, like all Europeans,” Dolin wrote, “knew nothing about hurricanes.” His ships faced difficult weather in the Caribbean on subsequent trips – either fierce storms or hurricanes. On another voyage, he encountered a hurricane that “struck with awesome fury,” Dolin reported. “Mountainous waves battered the ships, whipping winds shredded their sails, masts splintered, and twenty-four of the ships sank.”

The colonists, the author writes, developed a “mortal fear of hurricanes” and “fervently prayed that they would stay away. “But prayer couldn’t control the onslaught. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 crushed Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay colonies, “levelling hundreds of thousands of trees, turning numerous houses into kindling, driving ships from their anchors, and killing many people, including eight Indians on the edge of Narragansett Bay”. In contrast, the Treasure Fleet Hurricane of 1715 “is notable less for the direct damage it caused than for its impact on the course of piracy in America.” The storm sent a fleet of ships carrying gold, silver and jewellery to the bottom of the sea. Dolin wrote that the thought of all those valuables “carpeting the ocean floor fed thousands of fantasies and led to a rush of mariners sailing to the Florida coast to recover some of the booty”.

Dolin provides a fascinating and heart-wrenching account of one of the worst natural disasters in US history: The hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, on September 8, 1900. Galveston meteorologist Isaac Cline sent out updates “every two hours on the worsening conditions.” Worried about his pregnant wife, Cora, and three daughters, he “struggled two miles through waist-deep water to get to his home.” His house succumbed to the raging waters, and with the help of his brother Joseph, Cline saved his young daughters. But Cora and their unborn baby perished.

Almost four decades later, the Great Hurricane of 1938 smashed into Long Island and parts of New England, destroying vast amounts of private property, including the summer home of actress Katharine Hepburn in the Fenwick area of Old Saybrook, Conn. As the wind whipped and the water rose, Hepburn and several others at her house fled to higher ground. “Looking back,” she recalled, “we saw the house slowly turn around, sail off to the northeast and start down the brook which fed the swamp-lagoon. It just sailed away – easy as pie.”

Four massive hurricanes and one tropical storm struck in 1954 and 1955 on the East Coast. Hurricane Hazel, “the most devastating hurricane of the 1954 season”, made landfall with winds of about 135mph and ripped through North Carolina, Virginia, DC, Pennsylvania and New York and into Canada. It caused USD281 million in damage and killed 94 people in the US. In Canada, “the toll was USD100 million, and 81 dead.”

Dolin also takes readers through more recent examples such as Hurricanes Irma and Katrina, noting that “the suffering and misery in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes (were) almost unimaginable.” As many readers will undoubtedly recall, “the response of local, state, and federal governments to (Katrina) and its immediate aftermath was severely lacking,” Dolin wrote.

The outlook is far from promising. Dolin observed that “a growing number of studies have found strong evidence linking global warming to increased precipitation during storms, including hurricanes.” Warmer oceans, “which provide more heat energy to fuel hurricanes,” will make the winds more powerful and, in turn, future hurricanes more destructive. Following the science, Dolin soberly concluded, “Hurricanes of the future will most likely be worse than those of the past.”