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Meteorological Monsters

Amos Esty

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.

From Divine Wind: The History and Science of HurricanesClick to Enlarge Image

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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