For the first time since such records have been kept, 2020’s Atlantic hurricane season has seen nine tropical storms before Aug. 1. The month of July alone saw Cristobal, Edouard, Fay, Gonzalo, Hanna, and finally Isaias, all of which were the earliest named storms, with Isaias strengthening to full hurricane force that threatened as far north as New England.
Two new books, Eric Jay Dolin’s “A Furious Sky: The Five-Hundred-Year History of America’s Hurricanes,” and Andy Horowitz’s “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015” offer insights into the powerful effects of these weather systems.
Dolin (read the Monitor’s Q&A with him here) explains that hurricanes have left an indelible mark on American history. In the book’s epigraph, he quotes a letter written by a teenage Alexander Hamilton, describing a hurricane that struck his home on St. Croix in the Caribbean in 1772: “The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses ... were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.”
That tone of astonishment runs throughout Dolin’s thoroughly engrossing book. He’s combed historical archives, searching for the hurricanes that were severe enough to commandeer the narrative, however briefly. One such storm, for example, struck Massachusetts in 1635, flattening trees and houses and prompting then-Gov. William Bradford to comment that “none living in these parts, either English or Indians, ever saw” the like of it.
Lessons from Katrina
Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans in late August 2005, taking more than 1,800 lives and causing more than $160 billion in damages. Horowitz, a history professor at Tulane University, has written easily the best book on the subject since Douglas Brinkley’s 2006 “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” Beyond delving into the tangled history of Louisiana politics, Horowitz’s book thoughtfully attempts to understand the cultural nature of these calamities. “Disasters are less discrete events than they are contingent processes,” he writes. “Seemingly acute incidents, like the largely forgotten 1915 hurricane, live on as the lessons they teach, the decisions they prompt, and the accommodations they oblige.”
His book takes an intriguing look at the social dynamics that so often play out in natural disasters, noting that the “environmental precarity, economic inequality, racial enmity, political division, bureaucratic ineptitude, social trauma, and resistance to all of these things that defined much of the Katrina disaster might have happened anywhere in the United States.” But the fact that Katrina’s impact fell disproportionately on poor Louisianans raises a host of issues that Horowitz addresses better than any previous narrative history of the catastrophe.
Both authors stress the importance of preparedness. They also question the practice, over the years, of allowing homes to be rebuilt in more or less the same locations where storms had only recently destroyed them. The kind of long-term planning that accounts for climate change and rising sea levels has been conspicuously absent.
Each book points to the increasingly sophisticated technology that enables more accurate predictions of not only the onset but also the path of monster storms as a reason for some hope. But it would be better still if those storms encountered only tough levee systems when they came ashore, instead of row upon row of houses built right down to the water.