Hurricanes and Hubris

106 years ago today, a tropical storm swirled over Havana, Cuba. The U.S. Weather Bureau forecasters in Cuba (which America had taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War a couple of years earlier) declared that the storm would recurve north and make landfall in the Tampa area, then cross Florida and move up the east coast. The local Cuban forecasters, who had been studying and predicting the courses of tropical storms for centuries, said that the storm was actually a hurricane, and that it was heading west, not north. The Americans were wrong, and that storm crossed the Gulf of Mexico, moving over the Loop Current and exploding into the deadliest hurricane in American history. Three days later, it struck Galveston, Texas, destroying most of the city and killing several thousand people.

I finished Isaac's Storm yesterday morning. It's unusual for me to rip through a book in three or four days like that, but it was an engrossing tale and I had some free time to read.

Perhaps the most striking thing to someone in the early 21st Century is how certain those end-of-the-19th Century weather forecasters were of what they knew and of how much information they thought they had. They were making their forecasts based on barometers to measure changes in air pressure, thermometers to measure changes in temperature, anemometers to measure wind speed and direction, and rain gauges to measure rainfall. They had a general idea of the way that weather moved from one place to another, generally from west to east.

Their forecasts, however, were often woefully inaccurate. The prediction for New York City on March 12, 1888, for example, was "colder, fresh to brisk westerly winds, fair weather." That was the day of the Blizzard of '88, when New York got 21 inches of snow, Albany got nearly four feet of snow, and about four hundred people died in the northeast from the storm.

You'd think this would have made them more humble, but it just made them more secretive and competitive, considering weather information to be secret information that shouldn't be given out to laymen or competitors like the Cubans. And of course, they weren't going to listen to a bunch of superstitious primitives who were always overreacting to tropical storms and declaring them "hurricanes." No, there would be none of that. Only the head of the Weather Bureau was authorized to do so. And so Galveston had no warning of the storm bearing down upon it, and the city was wrecked.

Today, we have much more information available to us. We have a whole cable channel devoted to nothing but the weather. From my computer, I can look at satellite images of storms hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic, and can track their paths as they meander westward. But in the end, we often don't know much more about what their eventual courses will be than those weather pioneers with their antique instruments did. And even when we do know, sometimes people refuse to listen. Hurricane Katrina last year was a classic example. The people of New Orleans knew that one bad mother of a storm was coming their way, that they lived in a bowl below sea level, and yet many of them still stayed, even though many of them did have cars and could have evacuated. They could see the satellite loop on the Weather Channel, watching it spiraling ever closer. And still they stayed put.

The citizens of Galveston at least had the excuse of not knowing what those mysteriously rising waters flowing through their streets portended. They had no idea that there was a Category 4 or 5 hurricane bearing down on them, bringing winds estimated at 150 miles per hour and pushing a storm surge of fifteen or twenty feet directly at a city whose highest point was only eight feet above sea level. Nobody knew at the time that storm surge is the deadliest part of a hurricane, not the high winds. And so there was the absurdity of the men of Galveston trying to carry on as if there was nothing unusual happening.

And then the tidal wave came. Think of the destruction from the tsunami of December 2004, with the waves rolling through towns like a battering ram, knocking one building into the next into the next and pulverizing them all into a high wall of rubble. That is what Galveston looked like the morning after the hurricane. The suffering of the survivors can hardly be overstated. The city stank of death, from the thousands of decomposing bodies. They were unable to bury all of them, so at first they tried to bury the corpses at sea, but they just returned to Galveston on a ghoulish tide. Then, they were forced to burn the bodies on massive funeral pyres.

Galveston today is a small city compared to the nearby metropolis of Houston, but in 1900, they were about the same size and in strong competition for the role of chief port in south Texas. In 1900, before the hurricane, Galveston was the nation's fourth busiest port and was a major shipping port for American cotton, as well as a glitzy, glamorous vacation destination for the wealthy. Some called it "the New York of the South". Galveston had boomed, with a 30% increase since the 1890 census pushing the population to about 40,000. Somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 people died in the hurricane in Galveston, and in 1910, the city had only just regained the size it had in 1900. The Houstonians dredged Buffalo Bayou, opening their city up to seagoing traffic. And then, four months after the hurricane, a gusher of oil was found at Spindletop, and Houston's future was secured. Galveston was doomed to stay in Houston's shadow, a beach playground community for its larger neighbor.