A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina
Hurricanes have the power to fascinate us, as do earthquakes and tornadoes, in their total power and seeming randomness (and in a small way to an epically bad final episode of Dexter). Every hurricane season takes a toll on some region of the US or elsewhere, and while the news reports can be disturbing and frightening, it’s in the handling of these natural disasters that political policy, social attitudes, and scientific ignorance is most seen and least commented upon.
Stuart B. Schwartz has created a history of Hurricanes in the region that seems them the most…the Caribbean. Scores have occurred that usually stay above the midline of South America and further up the East Coast of the US, centering mainly on the Caribbean from Mexico to the Bahamas and other islands. When my parents lived in Belize, I heard stories of people tying themselves into palm trees to survive the occasional hurricane. I didn’t believe it, but apparently, it’s not a rare plan when you are faced with a mighty storm, flooding, and no shelter.
Schwartz begins with one of the earliest recorded hurricanes and the written histories available from it, and goes on to explore the scientific basis for the cause of them. Sailors often could tell when something was awry, but how that knowledge was dispersed was unlikely to help many people. Starting with this hurricane in Veracruz, he weaves together the human and scientific elements that inevitably alter our history.
The first storm described was one that hit Veracruz in 1552, one described by the author as a “sixteenth-century Katrina”. The aftermath led many to conclude it was God’s punishment that led to such devastation: “they were set in a social, political, and conceptual frame that made an understanding of this catastrophe a moment for reflection on human sin and moral failure as the cause of God’s anger” (3). Despite scientific evidence to the contrary, increasing in every century since, this opinion is still widely shared and proposed as the reason for modern day hurricanes and similar storms.
Since hurricanes were not well-known meteorological behavior in many climates, when information about them reached Europe and other Northern regions, many of the details were converted into object lessons regarding good and evil. It took a great deal of time for research into changes in weather, ocean conditions, and even animal behavior to be undertaken to prevent such disasters.
One chapter discusses early European forays into the Caribbean, with a somewhat ironic tale of two enemies whose fate was determined by such weather. Columbus’ enemy Francisco de Bobadilla was the investigator who chained up Columbus and returned him to Spain with a very unfavorable report. Years later, they meet again in Santo Domingo, where Bobadilla is heading out with a fleet of gold. One of those ships held gold that belonged to Columbus that was being carried to Seville. Columbus warned both him and the governor that a huge storm was coming, but neither wanted advice from him. He was even refused entry into the port. So Columbus found a small port to shelter in temporarily, and held out during the storm, while the others headed out.
Unfortunately for them, the prophecy of Columbus, who used his experience with observation of weather changes and water behavior, came true. Only the ship carrying Columbus’ gold survived. The rest, some twenty six boats, went down in the storm. Sadly, five hundred plus sailors and the remaining gold sank. Columbus may have felt vindicated, but he then suffered rumors of being “in concert with the Devil and that he had actually called down the storm upon his enemy” (11). I’m not a big fan of Columbus, but wow. Major burn.
When scientists set about trying to predict and prevent hurricanes, their ideas ranged from ridiculous to somewhat on target, but always at a cost.
Whatever the scientific value of such attempts at weather modification, these hurricane projects and those to increase or decrease rainfall were always politically controversial, since changing the course of a hurricane or changing areas of rainfall might save one area from injury, but place another in danger. Fidel Castro claimed the United States was carrying out environmental warfare by trying to divert rainfall from Cuba to ruin its agriculture (274).
Interestingly, it was Castro as a leader who was the one most interested in responding successfully to the next hurricane, Flora, where “all of the institutions of the regime were mobilized for the relief effort – militias, the army…the Red Cross and police “(288). He interacted with victims and played a visible role in the country by seeking out more information about the storms and relief available. This was in sharp contrast to the nearby regions of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,hit brutally and where the dictator Duvalier appeared to care not at all by the damage or his people’s losses.
Throughout the centuries since the hurricane in Veracruz, the responses are strangely the same. Not all take advantage of warnings given (which are not always clear), and when the damage is done, blame is given to the people themselves for abandoning God or living a lifestyle deserving of such disaster. An example of this, outrageous as it is, is Hurricane Katrina. The failures on so many levels is sobering and obscene.
First, despite Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was gutted after the election of George W. Bush. Bush’s campaign manager called it “an oversized entitlement program” and its level of preparedness was diminished (entitlement being the code word for helping the poor). After all, after 9/11 there were less funds allotted to it, and then it came under the direction of Homeland Security with a focus more on “anti-terrorist activities”. Good intentions may have led to very poor decisions, but it appears there was a more sinister attitude in play. One journalist, Eric Holderman, is quoted in the book as warning via the Washington Post that “hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, fires and flu were destined to be a national concern on a weekly or daily basis. They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them” (318).
He makes a valid point. Reducing protection across the board in case of a natural disaster weakens the US as a whole, as a terrorist act garners more of a reaction. And never can this been seen more than in Hurricane Katrina. When it occurred, I was on a rafting trip in Northern California. Away from news, even radio, for a week, made coming home to the disaster seem as if Armageddon had arrived in New Orleans. For many, it might as well have been.
New Orleans reeling from a hurricane is no surprise. First, the location. Dangerous levees, a low ground point in comparison to Lake Ponchartrain, and the levels of the Mississippi all contribute to a region surrounded by water (so much so that graves are raised on concrete platforms in the city cemeteries rather than in the ground). In addition, about a quarter of the city lived below the poverty line, and was 67% African American. This demographic was not considered politically valuable and thus efforts to help Louisiana were largely pushed aside, despite credible warnings.
We can all picture the Superdome and its intense overcrowding, but less known is the more insidious wrongs that took place:
Doctors were turned away from aiding victims because they did not have state licenses; buses were not mobilized [for evacuation] because they lacked air-conditioning or toilets; bus drivers were not allowed to serve until they had the required sexual harassment training; the governor’s request for national aid was delayed for five days because it had not been made in writing (324).
It’s hard not to quote this entire chapter as it is so shocking. I had no idea that FEMA tried to suppress photos of the dead or of those trapped on roofs or hanging on to flimsy floating boards. Were they worried about bad PR? Food was not provided to Superdome evacuees. While 80% of the city had been evacuated, those that remained were blamed in the press for not leaving in a timely way, despite that many of these were the poor and elderly that did not have the means to escape (remember the lack of buses?). The fact that not ALL could escape was already predicted by expert projection made no difference: no plan was implemented to change that, so this television visibility “drove home a message of social and racial inequalities”.
Now, all of this is tragic, and yet many people still feel that the situation was impossible to prevent and thus impossible to prepare for. Yet, attitudes of leaders and TV buffoons illuminate a further, racially biased attitude that had to contribute to the disaster, either in beliefs about it or towards its victims. While you may have the TV pundits say dumb things, like Bill O’Reilly, who “suggested that those who had not evacuated were drug addicts unwilling to leave their suppliers”, it’s more troubling when the political leadership in the US and especially that region (people in a position to change and improve policy) also speak ignorantly of the disaster. Robert Baker, a Baton Rouge congressman, stated “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Rick Santorum (fun to google him), a Republican candidate for President, felt that those who didn’t evacuate should be penalized. As if they weren’t already by the sub-human conditions.
Additionally, many TV outlets emphasized and exaggerated the occurrences of crime and looting. In fact, many of the looters were taking only food, milk, toilet paper and bread.
And of course, there were the interpreters, such as many ministers who suggested, just like in Veracruz centuries before, that an angry God was in punishment mode. Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, “said in his reelection campaign that God had punished New Orleans for the war in Iraq”. Such blame was attributed widely in many circles, namely Republican and Fundamental.
As Schwartz states so elegantly near the end of the book, “Providentialism was, as it has usually been, employed to support existing political convictions rather than as a catalyst for new interpretations or changes of heart (335)”.
The book concludes with an overview of Hurricane Sandy and the political clout that was banked upon in the aftermath, as well as the unnecessary damage and suffering to New Jersey residents.
There is no sense of this being a complete downer, but more an example of how attitudes (religious, secular, and political) often ignore the scientific basis for how things occur, and even avoid learning more about what science can tell us about hurricanes and other natural disasters. Much of the science behind hurricanes is discussed in the book, and knowledge of such is possible, not so much to prevent but to prepare.
Hurricane season starts June 1, 2015.
Review copy provided by Princeton University Press.