Hurricanes fascinated Professor Kerry Emanuel long before Katrina destroyed New Orleans. He personally remembers Hurricane Gloria in 1985. The storm’s 80 mile-per-hour winds splashed spray from the Charles River against his office window in MIT’s Building 54 — on the 16th floor.
But the “Labor Day Hurricane” of 1935 was worse, he explains. It was then one of the most intense hurricanes to ever hit the United States, killing more than 400 people, mostly veterans building a highway in Florida. A viable evacuation plan did not exist for people in the path of the storm, a deadly mistake repeated in 2005 in New Orleans.
Emanuel, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences, combined his scientific knowledge of how hurricanes form with research of historic storms to write Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes. The book was published in 2005, just before Katrina struck. In a twist of fate, Emanuel’s book, highlighting some of these hurricane disasters, went on sale within days of Katrina, the worst hurricane disaster in decades.
Divine Wind offers accounts of earlier hurricanes that should have better prepared the United States for a storm like Katrina — for example, the storm that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing as many as 12,000 people; the Labor Day Hurricane in 1935; or the “Great New England Hurricane” in 1938 that killed more than 600 people.
SCIENCE, ART, POETRY
Along with the science, Emanuel includes in his book art and poetry about the storms — among them the Winslow Homer watercolor “Hurricane, Bahamas” with its palm trees blowing above rooftops, and William Cullen Bryant’s poem “The Hurricane,” which includes the lines, “And I wait, with a thrill in every vein, For the coming of the hurricane!”
The combination of images from art and poetry is to show both the power and magnificence of hurricanes, Emanuel says. That image of magnificence, however, was lost when Katrina hit, leaving devastation and death in her wake. Today, the damage done by Katrina — floods, death, and ravaged property — is what people associate with hurricanes. As the book had only just come out when the hurricane hit, the effect Katrina had on sales is not easily quantified, Emanuel says. But his message about the beauty of hurricanes was eclipsed by the news coverage and photos of Katrina.
“It was hard to convey a sense of beauty with all the carnage,” Emanuel says.
And much of that destruction was predictable, he says. Weather experts long expected a storm would someday destroy New Orleans, because of the ways man had manipulated the coastline around the city, he says. Building levees and reducing the wetlands took away natural barriers to the storm surge.
“When Katrina emerged from the West Coast of Florida, I experienced a palpable sense of dread that something horrible was about to happen,” Emanuel says, remembering watching the weather reports and news coverage of the storm. “On a much longer term basis, we were all worried about New Orleans. Everyone knew how vulnerable it was.”
DISCOURAGES COASTAL LIVING
Emanuel believes that to prevent another storm disaster of similar magnitude, coastal living should be discouraged, and population growth should be encouraged to be in inland regions, not along the ocean. But more than one year after Katrina, Emanuel fears such warnings are not being heeded. Indeed, Emanuel shows that the hurricanes of the early 20th century, which were much deadlier than Katrina, due in part to the lack of sophisticated weather-monitoring equipment and warning systems, were powerful cautionary tales. Yet, coastal areas in the United States were still developed, as they continue to be today because people want to live on the ocean, regardless of the risk.
“The U.S. has a very serious hurricane problem, regardless of whether the climate is changing,” he says, explaining how increased development along the country’s coasts is putting more people and property in the path of future hurricanes. Thus, more people will see the ugliness of hurricanes firsthand, rather than, as Emanuel would prefer, recognize their majesty from a safe distance.
“I was trying to get across in the book that these are dangerous storms, but I was also trying to get across that these are marvelous storms that are beautiful,” Emanuel says.
Yes, beautiful. The book shows the destruction done by these storms, but also the natural splendor of the cloud formations and the wonder of nature. Emanuel has witnessed both destruction and splendor as he has flown in airplanes through hurricanes to do his research.
“It’s not a very rough and turbulent experience. It’s only a little rough. I’ve been on far worse commercial flights,” he says. Flying into the eye of a storm — the clear center of the spiral weather system — is like flying into a 10-mile wide coliseum with 12-mile high white walls under a blue sky, he says.
“It’s a very beautiful sight. It’s very sudden. It clears,” Emanuel says of flying through the thick clouds, wind, and rain of a storm into the bright and clear eye. “It’s like flying through a wall from night into day.”