At about the same time that Americans across the country began
wondering how Hurricane Katrina could have so overwhelmed those
charged with preparing for and responding to such disasters, a new
book by hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel arrived on bookstore shelves
with information that suggests a few answers. Emanuel notes that
despite advances in tracking, hurricanes remain frustratingly
unpredictable. And his book,
Divine Wind: The History and Science of
Hurricanes (Oxford University Press, $45), contains
one example after another of earlier storms whose damage was
compounded by simple human negligence.
In the days leading up to a 1900 hurricane that left thousands dead
in Galveston, Texas, for example, forecasters at the U.S. Weather
Bureau stubbornly refused to revise their initial prediction that
the storm would hit the East Coast. Instead, it struck the Gulf
Coast, which was left completely unprepared. When Hurricane Andrew
tore through Dade County, Florida, in 1992, much of the $30 billion
in damage was to buildings that had been shoddily constructed. Tough
building codes were ostensibly in effect but were rarely
enforced—perhaps, notes Emanuel, because construction
companies donated generously to the local politicians who were in
charge of compliance.
But the book is more than a catalogue of disaster. Emanuel also
discusses the science of hurricanes, from the dynamics of cyclone
formation to the cause of storm surges. Dozens of graphs and
photographs help explain how hurricanes work and how meteorologists
have managed to learn so much about them. (The map at right shows
ocean surface temperatures along the path of Hurricane Edouard in
1996. By drawing heat up into the atmosphere and by mixing surface
waters with deeper, colder layers, Edouard lowered surface
temperatures by as much as 5 degrees Celsius.)
Emanuel also includes passages from letters, poems and novels
showing that hurricanes have always played an important role in
human history. Yet Emanuel, writing before Katrina struck, doesn't
seem optimistic that we will learn from past mistakes. "It is a
sad fact," he says, "that the United States may not have
seen its last Galveston."
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