Pick from the Past
Natural History Magazine, September 1943
|South of the Mississippi Delta the tempest reached full maturity, its screaming winds whirling at 120 miles an hour.|
But this was no haven of peace. Within the eight- or ten-mile circle of sunshine the confused ocean writhed from the torture of wild winds and torrential rain which, for the moment, had passed on. On land the eye would be a breathless interlude between chaos and confusion, for the arrival of the windless vortex marks the passage of only half of a hurricane.
Moving westward across the Gulf of Mexico, the roaring spiral held up a mound of ocean ten to twenty feet high in the eye of the storm. Each day of its life the hurricane lifted two billion tons of vapor from the ocean and each day poured back the same weight; torrential rain fell an inch an hour. At lower levels there was no boundary between air and water. Hurled by gusts mounting to 140 miles an hour, the mixture of spindrift and rain struck with the bruising impact of flung gravel.
Winds raged with maximum violence in the front, right-quarter of the storm where forward movement of the mass augmented wind velocity. Air in the opposite sector, retarded by the same forward movement, moved at lower speeds, from 90 to 110 miles an hour.
Vicious air heaved the ocean into gigantic windrows that moved with the speed of wind. Greatest confusion reigned in the following half of the hurricane for here waters buffeted first by winds from the right of the storm path were suddenly struck by shrieking gales from the left. Contorted by wave motions from divergent directions, the ocean leaped and fell in mobile hysteria. Pyramidal waves sank as abruptly as they had risen, leaving vast holes bounded by leaping masses of sea.
At the front of the tempest, titanic waves, moving with irresistible momentum, escaped the grasp of the storm and fled from its fury. Moving into regions of light airs and calm seas, they were reduced in height and widened into broad swells. Traversing five, four, three, two hundred miles, they thundered a warning on the shores of the Gulf. When the hurricane struck Galveston, the city had prepared for the attack as best it could. Rain fell on beleaguered Galveston in the morning of the 8th, and from that time on there was no relief from the deluge. The winds shifted from north toward east, and with each degree of shift they gained in force and velocity. Inhabitants living near the beach sought safety in the center of the city, and those already there chose the strongest shelters available. By three oclock in the afternoon Gulf waters lay three to four feet deep on the city, and thereafter people moved from shelter only under threat of imminent death. A full gale howled through the streets, ripping off a roof here and there and using it to batter down walls to leeward. Coastal folks, accustomed to the might of storm waves on the beach, now hovered in terror as the waves battered their homes to kindling.
Mr. Cline, the United States weather observer, stood in the doorway of his home, which rested on an elevation fifteen feet above tide. On the second floor were his family and 50 other terrified citizens vainly seeking a haven. Faithful to his duties even at this moment, he made mental notes of the catastrophic phenomena about him. Even as he watched, there was a sudden surge that lifted and held the water more than waist-deep.
At eight p.m. there was moments pause as the east edge of the vortex passed over Galveston. Having dealt destruction with a colossal right hand, the tyrant in an instant rained blows on the island city with an equally deadly left. Striking abruptly with a force of 57 pounds on each square foot, hurricane winds grasped waves
|Cline, three of his children, and his brother clung to floating wreckage. For three hours they moved with the storm, climbing from raft to raft, dodging flying timbers.|
At eight-thirty Mr. Clines home disintegrated, and most of the refugees within, including his wife, sank from sight. Struck by a flying timber he lost consciousness, but later recovered to find himself clinging to his youngest child. Cline, three of his children and brother clung desperately to floating wreckage. Later they pulled a child and a woman from the raging waters. For three hours they moved with the storm, climbing from raft to raft, dodging flying timbers, sighting neither house nor inhabitant. It was by freak of fortune and storm that these terrified beings ended their journey not 300 yards from where it began, as their refuge of the moment grounded in subsiding waters.
Six thousand people suffered Mrs. Clines fate; 3,600 houses were totally destroyed and not a structure in the city escaped serious damage.
The hurricane roared northward across Texas toward the trough of low pressure. Deprived of its nourishing vapor, the tempest weakened, but swinging sharply northeast it sucked new life from fresh waters and littered Michigan beaches with debris. It crossed the valley of the St. Lawrence and moved out over the North Atlantic.
There was everything tragic but nothing unusual in the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Even the path which led it to the Texas coast was not unique. The city had heard the roar of big winds before, and confident that this was not the last, Galveston fortified itself with a sea wall which has since withstood similar attacks.
There is nothing new in hurricanes. Columbus heard of the big winds from the Carib Indians who called it Hunrakan, after their god of stormy weather. Before Columbus and since, one to twenty times each year, sometimes thrice in a single week, hurricanes have roared out of the doldrums into upper latitudes. They have terrific energy, and their average life covers nine days of destruction.
In Jamaica there is a jingle which warns the inhabitants when to expect the big winds:
June too soon,
July stand by;
August look out you must,
October, all over.
But just as June is not always too soon, neither do hurricanes always avoid Jamaica in October.
Spaniards of colonial times were aware of seasonal variations in hurricane paths. The Church decreed that Ad repellendat tempestates be included in all masses recited in Puerto Rico during August and September but not in October, whereas the same appeal was ordered in Cuban devotions during September and October.
Mighty tropical winds are not limited to the Caribbean; they are a common offspring of areas of calm the world over. The Chinese tai-fun (big wind), the Philippine baguios, the Australian willy-willy, the Bay of Bengal typhoon are all hurricanes under another name. In the Northern Hemisphere these storms always revolve counterclockwise and move first northwest, later swinging northeast. Their cousins in the Southern Hemisphere rotate clockwise, moving first southwest, later recurving southeast.
That there is less loss of life from hurricanes in the twentieth century that before is due largely to the astuteness of Willis L. Moore, onetime Chief of the Weather Bureau. At the outset of the
Hurricanes have changed the course of history more than once. A South Pacific typhoon that struck Apia, Samoa, in 1889 blew away a war then brewing between the United States and Germany.
Hurricanes have changed the course of history more than once. A south Pacific typhoon that struck Apia, Samoa, in 1889 blew away a war then brewing between the United States and Germany. The United States was resentful when Germany, pushed by Bismarck, captured the native ruler of Samoa and set up a Quisling--a prelude to complete confiscation of the island. The natives rebelled, and Germany declared war against them.
German warships shelled helpless native villages and destroyed American property in complete abandonment. Very shortly three American warships confronted as many German men- of-war in Apia harbor, and the matter came quickly to the verge of actual combat.
At this moment a typhoon roared down the bottle-neck of the harbor and, despite all anchors and full steam into the wind, sank the six vessels. Forgiving Polynesians rescued American and German sailors alike at the risk of their own lives. Lacking ships with which to carry on the dispute, the matter was submitted to negotiations and the freedom of Samoa was guaranteed for many years by the Treaty of Berlin in 1889.
There was one innocent bystander who escaped harm and taught a lesson. At the height of the storm, the forces of the wind against the bare masts and yards of the American and German warships was greater than the strength of their feeble engines and they were unable even to hold to their anchorage. But the British warship Calliope, one of the earliest designed to move by strong engines alone rather than by sail and steam, steamed out of the harbor into the teeth of the typhoon and reached the safety of the open sea.
This accomplishment opened the eyes of our Navy Department to the advantages of stronger engines and fewer sails on men-of-war, and the sunken vessels were replaced with ships adequately powered. The present American Navy is a monument to the sailors lost at Apia, Samoa, on March 16, 1889. Thus did a big wind in the South Pacific leave its imprint on the course of history.