Hurricane Isabel shut down DC, of course; any weather heavier than a gentle breeze can do that. But even in the Carolinas, where the storm was stronger and the usual band of brave and foolhardy residents refused to evacuate, it didn’t do much real damage. Isabel caused less than two dozen deaths (largely due to traffic accidents, although several people died from carbon monoxide poisoning while running generators during blackouts). Hurricanes are still devestating storms, but they’re not nearly as deadly as they once were. If another Long Island Express occurs (the practice of giving hurricanes people’s names didn’t start until the Fifities), the damage will be incredible. The 1938 hurricane devestated a rural Long Island largely made up of farming communities and was still the sixth costliest storm of the twentieth century. But, thanks to meteorologists and hydrologists, people will have warning; that wasn’t always the case. The deadliest hurricane in American history, the 1900 Galveston hurricane, arrived in the town almost unnoticed. Isaac Cline, the Weather Bureau’s man in Galveston, felt that the city’s position amidst the broad Gulf of Mexico shallows would protect it from hurricanes. At least one book partially blames Cline for the city’s failure to build a seawall. Cline was an educated man, but the field of meteorology was amazingly primitive at the time; Cline’s method of predicting the hurricane was simply to watch the skies:
The usual signs which herald the approach of hurricanes were not present in this case. The brick-dust sky was not in evidence to the smallest degree. This feature, which has been distinctly observed in other storms that have occurred in this section, was carefully watched for, both on the evening of the 7th and the morning of the 8th. There were cirrus clouds moving from the southeast during the forenoon of the 7th, but by noon only alto-stratus from the northeast were observed.
An estimated six thousand people died, including 100 residents of a local orphanage. Today, hurricane forecasters, especially NOAA’s National Hurricane Center, have a wealth of information to help them predict hurricanes. This information is public; amateur enthusiasts can play along at home. Water temperature readings help predict when tropical storms will form; radar — like modern meteorology, largely a product of World War II — helps track when and where a storm will make landfall.
But some of it is due to luck. At its peak, Isabel was a Class Five hurricane, the strongest category on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale and indicative of sustained winds of over 155 miles per hour. Class Fives are devestatingly intense storms that require massive evacuations. Fortunately, Class Fives rarely make it to the United States at full strength; Isabel had diminished to a mere tropical storm (with sustained winds of less than 75 miles per hour) by the time it reached the Washington area. But if a Class Five were to reach a low-lying city, the results could be horrific; experts say that New Orleans could literally be washed off the map by a storm of sufficient size. Climate researchers believe that global warming makes strong hurricanes stronger, so the next century may see an uptick in the very strongest storms. Hurricane control programs of the past proved a bust (although "storm modification" technology has obvious military applications that tie neatly into other military research conspiracy theories). Even some rather creative suggestions don’t give the folks at NOAA much hope:
For example, when Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992, the eye and eyewall devastated a swath 20 miles wide. The heat energy released around the eye was 5,000 times the combined heat and electrical power generation of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant over which the eye passed. The kinetic energy of the wind at any instant was equivalent to that released by a nuclear warhead. Perhaps if the time comes when men and women can travel at nearly the speed of light to the stars, we will then have enough energy for brute-force intervention in hurricane dynamics.
Some pie-in-the-sky technological innovation to reduce ocean temperatures under developing tropical storms could one day prevent hurricanes from forming. Until then? Stock up on Sazerac and andouille when you’re in the Big Easy, and keep your fingers crossed.