Hurricanes and hubris (What the Rabbi is reading)

I found a book at a hospital book sale a couple days ago called “Isaac’s Storm,” which is a meticulous recreation of the 1900 hurricane that leveled much of Galveston, with an emphasis on the art of forecasting and the US Weather Service of that time.  For various reasons, Galveston had absolutely no warning about the approaching storm, in part because the head of the US service looked down on the Cuban weather service completely and thought that they cried “wolf” every time there was a small weather disturbance.  Fascinating; not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but people’s stories and expectations and comments have been painstakingly recreated from newspapers and archives and photos.  Since we were in Galveston a few years ago, and on the adjacent Bolivar Peninsula, it was all the more interesting to read about its heyday and how it fell behind Houston in the race for prominence. 

It finally hit me that in those days, although they knew that cyclones were circles and which direction they swirled, they had no airplane reconaissance and no satellite imagery; their information came strictly from piecing together any reports that could be gotten from scattered observers on the ground.  When a storm crossed land and went back out to sea, they lost track of its course.  And of course, they were still looking at the universe with Newtonian assumptions; the Einsteinian notion of quantum leaps (that things can change with radical discontinuity rather than gradually) and the much more recent idea of chaos theory (that similar beginnings can produce widely divergent results) was still far in the future.  They really thought they knew everything about storms.

I didn’t realize until Garrison Keillor mentioned the hurricane on The Writer’s Almanac this morning that today is, in fact, the 108th anniversary of that storm hitting Galveston.