Introduction to A Furious Sky

The crawfish knew it was coming. On Wednesday, June 26, 1957, battalions of the crustaceans left their watery abodes along the southwestern coast of Louisiana and headed farther inland across streets and highways to escape the approaching storm. The locals knew it was coming too. Throughout the day, television and radio broadcasters, relying on the federal weather forecasts for guidance, warned area residents that Hurricane Audrey was on the way and advised those in low-lying areas to evacuate to higher ground. But since the warnings also said the hurricane wouldn’t arrive until late Thursday afternoon, nobody evacuated right away, instead delaying their departure until the last possible moment.

Around midnight on Wednesday, however, with the hurricane only about 170 miles from the coast, the situation changed dramatically. Strengthened by the warm Gulf of Mexico waters, Audrey transformed into a much stronger storm overnight, and started speeding toward the Louisiana shore. Most people were asleep when the new and much more alarming forecast was issued at 1:00 a.m., and they had no idea the hurricane was almost upon them.

Audrey zeroed in on Cameron Parish, Louisiana, near the mouth of the Sabine River, where Texas and Louisiana meet. Eighty percent of the rural parish consists of coastal marshes, while the remaining dry land averages only 4 feet above sea level. In the wee hours of Thursday, the outer edge of the hurricane roared in. As the whipping winds shook their houses, and the boiling Gulf waters began rushing over the countryside, the roughly 6,000 parish residents, many of them rudely jolted from their slumber, all experienced the same reaction of stunned surprise. “How could the hurricane be here already?” they asked one another. The warnings said it wasn’t supposed to arrive until much later in the day. Their surprise was quickly replaced with an entirely different emotion: fear. And with fear came a determination to survive. Unfortunately, many would not.

Early that morning, Dr. Cecil Clark and his wife, Sybil, were sitting on the couch in their four-bedroom brick ranch house about 5 miles to the east of Cameron, the parish seat. The gusting winds and rain made it difficult to sleep, and they were already up when the phone rang. It was one of Dr. Clark’s nurses calling from his twelve-bed clinic in Cameron. The strain registered in her voice as she told him, “Water is seeping into the hospital from under the doors.”

Cecil and Sybil, who was a nurse and served as manager of the clinic, decided to drive there immediately to help take care of their six patients. They roused their housekeeper, Zulmae Dubois, and asked her to watch over their three youngest children. The Clarks’ two older boys, eight-year-old John and seven-year-old Joe, were at their grandparents’ house 15 miles away.

The Clarks’ car ground to a halt just three blocks from the clinic. The water was too high to proceed, so they turned around and raced back home. Still anxious about their patients, the Clarks decided to split up. Cecil would head back to the clinic, while Sybil would stay behind and get the kids ready to evacuate once Cecil returned.

Cecil enlisted the help of his neighbor, James Derouen, who had a truck. Cecil’s plan was to follow the truck for as long as he could and then, when the water got too deep, abandon his car and ride in the truck the rest of the way. If the car ended up near the clinic, Cecil thought he could use it to rush home before the hurricane struck full force. In the meantime, he hoped that he and his nurses would be able to transport his patients to the Cameron courthouse, the largest and sturdiest building in the parish. Sybil watched her husband and James drive off, and then she and Zulmae roused the kids and got them dressed.

The doctor’s plan failed. Fast-rising waters forced the truck to turn around, and Cecil and James headed back home. But surging waters hurled Cecil’s car off the road into a ditch. James, unaware that his neighbor was no longer following him, continued driving. Cecil jumped into the raging, waist-deep waters and sought shelter with a family in a nearby house. As dawn was breaking, everyone in the house climbed to the attic, where they huddled together for warmth. Occasionally, Cecil peered out into the lightening gloom only to see nearby houses crumble under the assault of 145-mph winds and a 12-foot storm surge, upon which 10- to 15-foot waves tumbled and crashed. A couple of hours later, the hurricane made landfall just a few miles to the west.

Around 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, when the winds finally subsided, Cecil and the others ventured outside. A scene of utter devastation greeted them: homes obliterated, mighty trees washed away, and water, receding toward the Gulf, covering the land in every direction. Slowly, storm refugees gathered around. This being a close-knit community, they all knew the doctor. They told him that many of the injured were being taken to Cameron’s courthouse and pleaded with him to go there to provide medical treatment.

Cecil was torn. In one direction was his family, hopefully alive, and possibly in need of his help. In the other direction were his fellow citizens and his patients, whom he had taken an oath to serve. Placing his medical obligation over his personal concerns, as he knew Sybil would have done under the same circumstances, Cecil began the long walk to the courthouse. He arrived there at 7:00 p.m.

While Cecil was coping with the storm, Sybil was enduring her own ordeal. “When I saw the water rising,” Sybil later recalled, “I knew Cecil couldn’t make it home. And I knew we were trapped.”

 

Since the attic was too small to crawl into, Sybil and Zulmae retreated to the kitchen. They placed the children on the counter and barricaded the door with a chest of drawers, hoping to keep the wind and surging waters at bay. For hours, the house was under siege, trembling in the maelstrom. As the water seeped under the door and crept ever higher, Sybil and Zulmae joined the children atop the counter and clutched them tight, hoping to give them some sense of security.

Around 8:00 a.m., the house collapsed, and Sybil was temporarily knocked out. When she came to, she frantically searched for her children and Zulmae, but they were nowhere to be found. Carried along in the debris-laden water, Sybil was repeatedly submerged, only to claw her way back to the surface. Finally, she found refuge in a neighbor’s house, climbing in through a hole in its roof. But that house, too, was soon demolished by the storm.

Throughout the day and into the following morning, Sybil—bruised, battered, and chilled to the bone—drifted on a remnant of the roof. Finally, at noon on Friday, a small boat picked her up and took her to Lake Charles, a city about 30 miles from Cameron.

Meanwhile, at the courthouse, Cecil ministered to the sick and injured, including his patients from the clinic who had been brought there Thursday morning. Whenever someone new entered the building, Cecil would ask whether they had heard anything about his family or Zulmae. Each time, he got the same soul-crushing response: no. Despite his mounting grief, Cecil continued his rounds, a steely commitment to his work keeping him from emotionally and physically breaking down.

 

At 7:00 p.m. on Friday, Cameron Parish’s state representative, Alvin Dyson, was in the courthouse radio room, speaking with the operator from Lake Charles, trying to get the latest information on recovery efforts. As soon as the operator told him that Sybil and the two oldest Clark boys, John and Joe, were alive and in Lake Charles, Alvin dropped the receiver and dashed through the building, searching for Cecil. When he found the doctor and shared the news, Cecil didn’t believe it. “It must be a mistake. The two boys were with my mother. They must mean my mother and the two boys.”

Cecil asked Alvin to get the operator back on the line to confirm what he had heard. A few minutes later Alvin reported that there was no mistake. Cecil’s wife and two sons were alive, as were his parents. Soon, Cecil was on a helicopter heading for Lake Charles, where he was reunited with Sybil and the boys, who had ridden out the hurricane alongside their grandparents, tied together with rope to the crook of an old oak tree. The reunion, however, was heart-wrenchingly bittersweet, for although Sybil and the two eldest boys had survived, the three youngest Clark children, and Zulmae, had perished.

After spending some time with his family, Cecil dutifully answered reporters’ questions about conditions in Cameron, before going to sleep for the first time in nearly three days. Just a few hours later he was up again, headed for the local air base to catch a helicopter ride back to Cameron to continue caring for those who needed his help.

In the ensuing months, Cecil would be showered with local and national awards, honoring his selfless heroism in tending to the sick and injured in the aftermath of the hurricane. But all the adulation made him a bit uncomfortable. “I did what was necessary for me to do as a doctor,” he said. “That’s just the way it was.”

 

This harrowing and tragic story is just one of thousands that played out that day. Hurricane Audrey destroyed nearly every building in Cameron Parish, leaving 5,000 people homeless and causing $150–$200 million in damage. Roughly 500 people died, the vast majority coming from the parish seat, Cameron, which lost more than a third of its population. In the immediate aftermath, area residents wandered about in a daze, shell-shocked by the experience. Some could be heard muttering to themselves, “Everything’s gone.”

 

While Hurricane Audrey is unique in its particulars, from a broader perspective it is an all-too-familiar narrative. Hurricanes are—have always been—an integral, inevitable, and painful part of the American experience. Just as we can count on the sun rising and setting each day, so, too, can we expect hurricanes to periodically visit our shores. These days, their arrival is heralded by an annual ritual that is an ominous portent of potential danger on the horizon.

 

In the spring, after the computer models have been run and scientists have scrutinized the numbers, government, academic, and private organizations issue their outlooks for the upcoming hurricane season, which officially runs from June 1 through November 30. The news is trumpeted in the press and eagerly consumed by a weather-obsessed culture. These reports are just predictions, a range of possibilities that offer no guarantees of where, when, or whether a hurricane might crash ashore, but they incite anxiety. If you are among the many tens of millions of people inhabiting the East Coast, Gulf Coast, or the Caribbean, hurricanes are looming threats that might invade your lives, and there is nothing you can do to prevent their strike.*

 

(*Although hurricanes do hit Hawaii, they are extremely rare there. Nevertheless, Hawaii’s worst hurricane, Iniki, is discussed in Chapter 8. As for the West Coast, the only documented case of a hurricane striking that region was one in 1858 that plowed into San Diego. Hurricanes spare the West Coast for two reasons: the prevailing winds tend to push storms offshore, and the waters are generally too cold to sustain such massive storms.)

In an average year, six hurricanes dance over the Atlantic, three of which are major hurricanes, defined as having sustained winds of at least 111 mph. The number of hurricanes varies from year to year. Fortunately, few of these storms actually make landfall. Typically, two hurricanes hit the United States annually, and a major one pummels us only about once every two years.

There have also been periods when not a single hurricane visited American shores, or those that did had minimal impact. During such relatively quiet times, memories fade and the fear of hurricanes begins to diminish. Former National Hurricane Center director Max Mayfield called this dangerous tendency to forget the lessons of the past “hurricane amnesia.” Only the old-timers who have the hard-earned wisdom of age know what every meteorologist knows: if you live in a place that hurricanes have visited before, they will, one day, come again. Even if your slice of the coast has never been struck by a hurricane, or has received only glancing blows, your time, too, will likely come. But hurricanes are not equal-opportunity offenders. While twenty-one coastal states have been hit by hurricanes, certain states are particularly prone to be afflicted by these massive storms. Residents of Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana, and South Carolina—in that order—take the brunt of the punishment, with Florida alone accounting for roughly 40 percent of all hurricane strikes.

Hurricanes, however, are not merely coastal events. After making landfall, they typically head inland. Although they eventually fade away, as they degrade and weaken they can still leave a trail of calamity in their wake. And no matter where you reside in the United States, even if hurricanes or their remnants never reach you, they can still significantly impact your life in the form of economic dislocation, harm to friends and relatives, and the use of federal funds for relief instead of other public purposes.

Hurricanes have been churning up ocean waters and slamming into land for all of recorded history, and almost certainly much farther back into the recesses of time. Every society tormented by hurricanes bears the scars of these encounters, including the native populations of the Americas, the European settlers who came after them, and the American colonists, as well as the nation they created.

Coursing through the centuries like brawlers bobbing and weaving and slugging anyone or anything that stands in their way, hurricanes have left an indelible mark on American history. Since 1980 they have accounted for roughly 50 percent of the cost of all the natural disasters in the United States that exceeded $1 billion in damage. And going back to the late 1800s, hurricanes have killed nearly 30,000 people. Of course, hurricanes will continue to make history, and there are strong indications that the blows they land will only become more powerful and more destructive in the future.

A Furious Sky is the history of the American hurricane or, more specifically, the hurricanes that have hit what is today the United States. Given that there have been hundreds, if not more than a thousand, such hurricanes in the past five centuries, A Furious Sky must understandably be selective, focusing mainly on storms that have, arguably, made the most impact on the nation’s long history. Before the discussion goes any further, however, a key term must be defined: What is a hurricane?

 

This is a surprisingly complex question. But by way of introduction, a basic definition will do. Simply put, hurricanes are violent, swirling storms with sustained winds of at least 74 mph. They generally form where the ocean’s upper layer—down to about 150 feet—reaches the trigger temperature of at least 80 degrees Fahrenheit, thereby providing the massive amounts of heat energy needed to fuel them. Two other conditions necessary for a hurricane to thrive are low vertical wind shear, which keeps the hurricane from being ripped apart, and an abundance of warm, moist air that evaporates from the ocean surface. When that moist air rises, it cools and condenses, forming clouds and releasing the heat that powers the storm.

 

Hurricanes can be anywhere from tens of miles in diameter to more than a thousand, and over 50,000 feet high, reaching from the ocean’s surface all the way up to the top of the troposphere. These behemoths rotate in a counterclockwise direction in the Northern Hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern. But wherever and however they spin, hurricanes are characterized by extremely low pressure and a relatively calm center called the eye, with the most ferocious winds occurring in the eyewall and decreasing in intensity as one travels outward from the core. Hurricanes whip up the seas, generate gargantuan waves and mammoth storm surges, and pour down such diluvial quantities of water that they seem to presage the end of time.

Hurricanes also discharge vast quantities of energy. Considering only the wind, an average hurricane produces the equivalent of half of the world’s electrical generating capacity. But hurricanes produce even more energy when water vapor condenses to form clouds—a type of energy known as the latent heat of condensation. By this measure, an average hurricane produces the equivalent of two hundred times the world’s generating capacity. To put it another way, an ordinary hurricane releases the same amount of energy as 10,000 nuclear bombs. For a major hurricane the number is higher still.

Of all the hurricane’s astounding features, the most curious and startling is the eye, which is typically 20–40 miles wide. While the hurricane rages all around it, creating the meteorological equivalent of a temper tantrum on steroids, the eye is comparatively tranquil. Here the winds fall away to gentle, warm breezes, and the skies open up to let in the sun’s streaming rays or the ethereal glow of stars and planets. In some eyes, the core is virtually clear, but even when swirling clouds remain, there is a serene aspect to the sky. And as the spiraling clouds of the eyewall ascend, they tilt back, forming a massive and undeniably grand amphitheater miles high.

The eye is experienced quite differently, depending on whether one is on land or at sea. On the ocean, despite the dying of the winds and transformation of the sky, the power of the hurricane is still evident in the waves and swells that race in all different directions, smashing into one another, generating a jumbled landscape where mountains of water merge and diverge, and rise and fall in an erratic way. One mariner in the 1860s, whose ship spent thirty minutes in the eye of a hurricane off the coast of New York, described the sea as a “number of huge watery cones . . . that were dancing an infernal reel, played by some necromancer.” But on land, as the eye passes overhead it is as if the hurricane has departed. In fact, there are more than a few examples when people thought this was the case and walked about in the eye, confident the worst was over, only to be caught in the open when the eye moved on, leaving them to confront the fury of the storm’s other side.

Most of the hurricanes in the North Atlantic originate not over the water, as some may think, but over the southern flanks of the Sahara desert. There, a convergence of arid, scorching desert air and the moist air winging in off the Indian Ocean from the east, and coming from the Gulf of Guinea coast to the south, creates areas of low pressure. These low-pressure pockets are accompanied by intense thunderstorms that extend into the upper atmosphere and are steered to the west by the prevailing easterly winds. This mass of unstable air, called an African easterly wave, leaves the continent roughly every three to four days and is swept out over the Atlantic.

Fortunately, these systems usually fizzle out or fall apart. But every fourth or fifth wave continues its westward journey, wafting past the Cape Verde Islands, where trouble can brew. Under the favorable conditions mentioned earlier, these waves can strengthen into a tropical depression, a system with organized circulation but sustained winds of 38 mph or less. If such conditions persist, these depressions can grow into tropical storms, with sustained winds ranging from 39 mph to as high as 73 mph. Only a fraction of African easterly waves, however, ever ascend the weather ladder, evolving from tropical depression to tropical storm to a full-fledged hurricane that travels across the Atlantic.

Since these hurricanes are born in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands, they are often called Cape Verde hurricanes. While about 60 percent of the hurricanes in the North Atlantic are Cape Verde hurricanes, they account for roughly 85 percent of all major hurricanes. Many other hurricanes, which require the same favorable environment to thrive, are born in the Caribbean Sea or the Gulf of Mexico as tropical depressions, and rather than barreling across the Atlantic from east to west, they often travel roughly from south to north. In addition, a significant number of hurricanes originate in the mid- or western Atlantic.

Whether they come from the east across the Atlantic, or arise in the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico and come up from the south, hurricanes typically travel over the ocean at a rather leisurely pace of between 10 and 25 mph. However, a few are veritable speed demons that have reached speeds as high as 60 mph. Exactly when and where a hurricane will make landfall can remain a mystery up until it is about to roar ashore. Even with the most sophisticated technology tracking their whereabouts and forecasting their course, these storms are somewhat unpredictable.

Hurricanes share many characteristics, including powerful winds, torrential rain, plummeting pressure, and the magisterial eye. They often follow similar paths, are of similar size, and cause similar damage. Nevertheless, no two hurricanes are identical. Each one has its distinctive meteorological history, written in the sky and on the land.

 

Hurricanes go by different names in different parts of the world. For example, they are cyclones in the Indian Ocean, and in the northwestern Pacific Ocean they are called typhoons, a term derived from the Chinese tai fung, meaning “great [or big] wind.” Some Australians refer to hurricanes as “cockeyed Bobs” or “willy-willys.” In the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico—the regions that are the main focus of this book—hurricanes are called just that, hurricanes, a word that has its origins in the languages of the Caribbean basin, where native cultures attributed the region’s wild weather to the work of gods. The Mayans named their god of storms or destruction hunraken, and the Quiche and the Arawak called theirs hurakan, while the Taíno peoples called theirs juracán. Over the centuries of European colonization, one or more of these names ultimately morphed into huracán, ouragan, orkaan, orkanen, and hurricane, in Spanish, French, Dutch, Danish, and English, respectively.

Hurricane is not a monolithic designation. There are gradations within the umbrella term. According to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, there are five categories of hurricanes, ranked from 1 to 5—the higher the number, the more intense the hurricane. Winds in Category 1 hurricanes range from 74 to 95 mph; in Category 2, from 96 to 110 mph; in Category 3, from 111 to 129 mph; in Category 4, from 130 to 156 mph; and for the ultimate Category 5 hurricanes, winds equal or exceed 157 mph. Category 3 and higher hurricanes are classified as major hurricanes, the ones that are typically the most damaging and feared, even though less powerful hurricanes can also cause tremendous harm.

While a Category 1 hurricane can rip shingles and vinyl siding off a building, topple small trees, and down power lines, a Category 5 storm will result in catastrophic damage, leaving impacted areas virtually uninhabitable for days, or even months, and in some cases creating such apocalyptic conditions that people choose to relocate rather than rebuild. As one climbs the hurricane category hierarchy, the force of the winds does not increase in a linear fashion; instead, it jumps. For example, a relatively anemic Category 1 hurricane with winds of a mere 74 mph could launch a two-by-four into the air with such force that it is capable of being driven clear through a thin, nonreinforced concrete block. Doubling the wind speed to 148 mph (a strong Category 4) does not double the force, but rather quadruples it, making the storm four times as powerful as a Category 1. At that wind speed, a flying two-by four would likely go through almost anything it hit.

The Saffir-Simpson scale came into being only at the tail end of the twentieth century. Before that, back to the early 1800s, hurricanes were typically defined by the Beaufort scale as force-12 storms, having winds so strong that “no canvas could withstand them.” (Much later, when speed was added to the Beaufort scale, force-12 storms were defined as those having sustained winds higher than 74 mph.) Going back further in time, when humans’ ability to accurately measure wind speed was meager or nonexistent, the hurricane label was applied subjectively to storms of immense violence that were deemed to be worthy of such a designation. Thus, in this book, hurricanes will be identified by their Saffir-Simpson category when data allows, but will be called only hurricanes when it does not.*

(*The Hurricane Research Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has analyzed the historical records and, for hurricanes dating back to 1851, has assigned each one a Saffir-Simpson category level based on the available information, such as pressure and wind speed. Those are the category designations used in this book.)

While the Saffir-Simpson and Beaufort scales both focus on wind speed, water poses a far greater threat to human life. The massive storm surges and torrential rains that accompany hurricanes are the real killers. Together, these two elemental forces account for roughly nine out of every ten direct hurricane-related fatalities. Each cubic yard of water weighs about 1,700 pounds. That is why the walls of water generated by a hurricane—especially when full of storm wreckage—become battering rams that can level any structure in their way, strip the landscape bare, and swallow people whole. Because of this immense capacity for destruction, meteorologists and emergency managers are fond of saying that when confronting a hurricane, it is best to “hide from the wind, run from the water.”

Even after the hurricane has passed, the water left behind remains a serious hazard. By destroying what humans have built, hurricanes liberate a host of toxins into the environment. Oil, gas, cleaning chemicals, and waste from livestock pens, as well as overflow from landfills, sewage systems, and hazardous waste sites, can be swept into the raging waters; and decomposing animal carcasses and human corpses are often added to the churning mix. The longer the waters remain, the more dangerous this potentially deadly concoction becomes, acting as an incubator and transmitter of disease. And for those structures that are able to withstand the hurricane’s winds, waves, and deluge from the sky, the peril is just beginning. The standing water gives mold spores the boost they need to germinate, quickly transforming buildings into biological war zones.

Regardless of the category and the amount of water that surges in or rains down, hurricanes have the humbling ability to strip away the trappings of modern society and return us, if only temporarily, to a time when electricity, clean water, sanitation, and even a roof over one’s head were unimaginable luxuries. By leaving behind the detritus of civilization—mangled buildings and torn landscapes—hurricanes redefine reality and fracture people’s lives.

 

A Furious Sky weaves together a great range of captivating themes. There is the intriguing and, at times, rather nasty history of meteorology, with advances attributable to gifted amateurs and skilled experts alike. The death, destruction, and despair caused by hurricanes are on full display, as are stories of charity, kindness, humor, and resilience. The influence of hurricanes on the course of empire, the outcomes of war, and the fortunes of individuals adds to the story. Critical innovations in communication, aviation, computer, and satellite technology play an important part, as does the women’s movement and its role in the naming of hurricanes. In the end, the history of America’s hurricanes forces us to confront thorny questions of how we can learn to survive and adapt to the continued barrage that is sure to come from the greatest storms on Earth.

Seen from space, hurricanes are one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing features in the world. Racing around the globe like downy, spinning pinwheels floating silently above the Earth, their very magnificence belies their dreadful impact on American history. But however painful that history is, it is also enthralling, and, much like hurricanes, it reveals the brilliance and drama of the planet we call home.

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© 2016 by Eric Jay Dolin