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Eye of the storm
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A mere week before the horrors of Hurricane Katrina and its apocalyptic aftermath were broadcast all over the world, we received a review copy of Kerry Emanuel’s new book Divine Wind: the History and Science of Hurricanes (Oxford Press).

Emanuel, professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the reigning media guru of all things hurricane, combines literature, history and raw science to bring the awesome experience of hurricanes to life. Though obviously not released in time to incorporate Katrina, much of the book is eerily prescient in its grim warnings of inadequate construction and preparation.

In addition to the episode in early Japanese history that gave the book its title, he writes chapters on many other storms, like the one October in 1780 when three hurricanes killed over 25,000 people in the Caribbean, the deadly U.S. storms in Galveston and Lake Okeechobee, and the twin typhoons that badly damaged U.S. Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s fleet in World War II.

Interspersed with the history are chapters dealing with the science of hurricanes, with helpful and user-friendly graphics to make that science come alive.

While the release of Emanuel’s book is timed perfectly with the height of interest in the big storms, he takes no pleasure in that fact. “There are a lot better ways to sell a book,” he says grimly. “I’m not really thinking about that at all, frankly.”

We spoke to him by phone last week.

Connect Savannah: We received your book a week before Katrina hit. Your warnings were quite prescient. How has the reality hit you?

Kerry Emanuel: It’s horrible. There are no words for it, really. I’ve known for a long time that something much like this was likely to happen, but I never thought that it would be quite this bad. Of course, we all know now about the many articles that were written showing that something like this could occur. But frankly I didn’t envision it ever being this bad.

Connect Savannah: The government’s slow response reminded me of the section in your book about the screw-ups during the Galveston hurricane in 1900. Has the bungling after Katrina led you to similar comparisons?

Kerry Emanuel: It has. In the case of the Galveston hurricane, there was a lot of ineptitude in the warning system. At that time, the National Weather Bureau was very jealous of the Cubans, who had quite a good forecasting system. So they forbade any of the data from Cuba to be issued or talked about. There was a lot of really petty politics.

But unlike Galveston, with Katrina the warnings were fabulous. For days forecasters were warning that something would happen. You know, in my time I’ve read a lot of National Weather Service memos and statements. But the one that they issued before Katrina was truly apocalyptic.

Connect Savannah: I remember that one. It began with “most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks” and ended with “water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

Kerry Emanuel: There’s a story behind that warning, actually. It was canned. It was written far in advance of the storm, because this exact scenario -- New Orleans being hit by a Category 5 storm and the levees breaking -- had been envisioned for so long. A lot of people labored over that statement over the years. It was not written on the spot by any means. Someone at the National Hurricane Center just had to make the judgement that this was finally the time to run it.

Connect Savannah: Just last week a massive typhoon hit the coast of China. They evacuated over a million people with a minimum of deaths. How come China can manage that and America can’t?

Kerry Emanuel: Well, China has over 1000 years of experience with hurricanes. Then there’s the geographical reality that, with the exception of Hong Kong, China really doesn’t have a lot of its major cities located right on the coast.

But through all this, it’s important to remember that there was an 80 percent evacuation rate with Katrina. In talking with various emergency planners, they all tell me the best you can reasonably hope for in situations like these is a 60 percent evacuation rate. So strange as it sounds, you can actually look at this glass as being half-full rather than half-empty.

The thing here was that there were no provisions made for the sick and the elderly. I don’t know what the situation was with many of the others that didn’t leave -- whether they couldn’t leave or they just wouldn’t.

Connect Savannah: How would you compare government response in this country to other countries?

Kerry Emanuel: It’s hard to come up with a parallel in the United States. When Galveston happened in 1900 we didn’t have the huge federal government that we have now. Expectations of how government will react have changed an awful lot in those 100 years.

Katrina bears comparison more with disasters in the developing world. But as bad as this was, whenever hurricanes or earthquakes strike Third World countries the damage is truly catastrophic, even more so than with Katrina. In 1999, Hurricane Mitch killed over 11,000 in Central America. In the early 1990s, 100,000 died after a typhoon in Bangladesh. The difference I guess is that in those places one doesn’t expect government to do too much.

But the difference between the disaster in New Orleans and most disasters in the U.S. is that this one seemed to have an effect somewhere between a developed and a developing nation. With Andrew we had enormous damage, but that was primarily a wind event. There were no flooded streets. But in New Orleans we had scenes more reminiscent of a disaster in Haiti or Bangladesh.

Clearly, there wasn’t an effective response. But it’s a complex disaster. There are a lot of dimensions to it. Meteorologically, of course, it was a worst-case scenario.

Connect Savannah: In Time magazine and in the New York Times last week you were quoted as saying that the intensity of hurricanes is definitely increasing due to global warming.

Kerry Emanuel: Yes, it definitely is. Over the last 50 years there’s been a rather remarkable increase in intensity in concert with the measurably warmer waters as a result of global warming.

But you only see this if you look at the whole global data set. With hurricanes making landfall in the continental United States, the sample is just too small to get accurate data. For example, only 11 percent of all hurricanes happen in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Only two tenths of one percent actually make landfall in the United States.

As far as discerning trends impacting the U.S. is concerned, the element of chance is still the big factor that swamps all other considerations. That includes the so-called multi-decadal swing you hear people talking about.

Connect Savannah: You also say that the frequency of hurricanes seems to be unaffected by global warming. You go so far as to say that as far as hurricanes go, global warming is a less pressing issue than our own building habits.

Kerry Emanuel: People in my profession have been trying to ignite that discussion since long before Katrina. Because flood insurance is so highly regulated, Insurance rates are artificially kept down for people living on the coasts, which essentially subsidizes risky behavior. This of course leads to artificially large premiums elsewhere.

The Mayans didn’t build cities on the coast precisely because of the threat of hurricanes. It was a very effective strategy for them.

Connect Savannah: The book not only has a lot of clearly explained weather science, but there’s literature as well. You highlight famous passages dealing with storms, and give some incredible accounts from history. Why did a professor from MIT choose such an eclectic approach?

Kerry Emanuel: I felt compelled to try and look at hurricanes in a -- I hate that word “holistic,” but I guess that’s what you have to call it -- holistic way, from different angles, in all the different ways humans look at things -- art, history, science, storytelling. I wanted to paint a full picture. I especially wanted to get young people interested in hurricanes from a scientific point of view.

I also wanted people to learn the lessons of history, but I’m afraid it’s a little too late for that. It’s part of human nature not to do anything about a crisis until it actually comes. There’s always a feeling of “it can’t happen here.” w

Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes, is published by Oxford Press.

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