A book on historical U.S. hurricanes, another offering a harrowing first-person account of Hurricane Irma in the Virgin Islands, plus a fun cli-fi story about a meteorologist who discovers he can change the weather – each offers good options for holiday reading.
A Furious Sky
A Furious Sky tells the 500-year history of hurricanes in America. The author of this 2020 book is Eric Jay Dolin, who has written 14 history books that often focus on maritime topics, wildlife, and the environment. Dolin recounts some truly fascinating tales of how the history of America has been influenced by great hurricanes. For example, hurricanes prevented Spain from expanding its holdings in North America beyond Florida in the late 1500s, and played a key role in shifting the tide of the American Revolution War against the British.
As he moves through the centuries, Dolin traces the development of hurricane science, from important discoveries made by Benjamin Franklin in the 1700s to the latest troubling research connecting stronger hurricanes to a warming climate. The book’s 300 pages include 103 black-and-white illustrations and eight pages of color illustrations. Over 50 pages of references at the end give readers plenty of jumping off points to learn more.
There were three particularly compelling stories in the book:
1) Actress Katherine Hepburn’s harrowing survival story from the Long Island Express hurricane of 1938, a category 3 storm that devastated New England;
2) The crusade by Roxcy Bolton, the “founding mother” of Florida’s feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, to have hurricanes not be given only women’s names; and
3) Miami meteorologist Brian Norcross’ epic 23-hour marathon on-air performance during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, as the category 5 storm devastated South Florida.
Hurricane aficionados will enjoy seeing a one-page section on my near-fatal flight through Hurricane Hugo of 1989, with a lengthy quote from my Weather Underground story about the flight.
Two minor quibbles with A Furious Sky – It could have used more story-telling (it seemed too encyclopedic at times), and stories about all Atlantic hurricanes, not just those that affected the U.S. For instance, a section on the Lesser Antilles’ Great Hurricane of 1780, the Atlantic’s deadliest hurricane of all-time, would have strengthened the book.
Overall, though, A Furious Sky is a must-read for the serious student of hurricanes, let’s say 4.5 out of 5 stars. A Furious Sky is $18.95 in paperback from Amazon. The New York Times did a more detailed review of the book in August.
Irma Was Here: A Personal Story
Published in 2019, this book gives a gripping first-person account of the impact of category 5 Hurricane Irma in 2017 on Tortola (population 25,000) in the British Virgin Islands. The author is Diandra Jones, an English and dance teacher who lived on the island when Irma hit. Just 123 pages, with 24 black-and-white photos, her work makes for a very intense read.
The first four chapters of Irma Was Here cover the events three days prior to the hurricane, and give the reader a very personal view of the lives of the author and her husband. They were married just three months before, living a happy, idyllic life on what she describes as their “island paradise.” As the hurricane approaches, they realize they had better try to escape, but just miss getting the final seats on the last airplane out of Tortola.
The fifth chapter recounts the grueling eight hours of Irma’s passage, as the hurricane partially destroys their home. In her words:
The winds lunge at us like ferocious pent-up Rottweilers. With tireless brutality, she tries to penetrate our inner sanctuary. Adam and I again lay in silence, gripping the mattress, sweating, barely breathing, as Irma tires to tear our home apart.
For four hours, Jones mentally chants a Hail Mary verse, until Hurricane Irma finally moves on.
The next six chapters describe the hellish aftermath of the hurricane – six days when Jones and her husband struggle to cope, and attempt to escape from their destroyed island paradise. Jones describes the devastation on Tortola in truly heart-wrenching terms that bring tears to the eyes.
The final chapter of the book is a warning to all. Jones writes:
The new reality of these islands, and many parts of the world now more threatened than ever by catastrophic natural disasters caused by climate change, may be one of a long, futile struggle against forces beyond their control: a gradual depopulation as fewer and fewer residents brave out more destructive hurricanes.
Jones emphasizes how monster hurricanes like Irma, super-charged by hotter oceans, are a huge threat to hurricane-prone Atlantic shores. Irma had sustained winds of 180 mph when it hit the British Virgin Islands, making it the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever observed outside of the tropics, and the strongest landfalling Atlantic hurricane ever recorded on a Caribbean island. It is sobering that Irma’s record as being the strongest Atlantic hurricane outside of the tropics was one it held for only two years – Hurricane Dorian beat that record in 2019, when it slammed into the Bahamas with winds of 185 mph, causing that nation’s most expensive natural disaster of all-time.
There is one minor inaccuracy in Irma Was Here: Jones’ characterization of Irma’s peak winds at 185 mph. A post-storm reanalysis in 2018 determined that the actual peak winds were slightly lower – 180 mph. This change occurred after the book was submitted for publication, and is mentioned in one of the footnotes. Overall, though, this book earns five stars out of five, and Irma Was Here is a must-read cautionary tale of what human-caused global warming will bring much more of in the future – apocalyptic hurricanes that make island paradises in the tropics a challenge to inhabit. Irma Was Here is $9.99 in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon.
The Weathermaker is a 2020 “cli-fi” (climate fiction) novel by legendary Philadelphia TV meteorologist Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz. He spins a fanciful and enjoyable tale about TV weatherman Neil Stephenson who discovers during a snowstorm producing less snow than predicted that he can make the snow increase or decrease, and make it start or stop raining, simply by raising his arms to the heavens and calling for the desired weather.
His new-found powers bring the protagonist (and his TV station) fame and fortune, resulting in a wild series of adventures that involve efforts to modify thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and droughts, with the military, insurance industry, criminals, and the most beautiful actress in Hollywood all wanting a piece of the action.
One of the more compelling chapters to me, since I served for four years on NOAA’s Hurricane Hunter planes, was Stephenson’s ride on an Air Force Reserve C-130 aircraft into the eye of a hurricane, which he tries to weaken. Suffice to say, the mission becomes rather non-standard when he finds he needs the crew to open the door on the plane in-flight so his weather-changing efforts can work!
The book features many excellent and informative discussions of the science of weather and climate change. Also included are many funny stories from Schwartz’s 40-year-long career as a TV meteorologist, fictionalized to fit within the narrative of the story.
Fiction writing is not Schwartz’s background, though he has written one non-fiction book on Philadelphia weather, and the book does include some clumsy writing and implausible dialog. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to read an escapist cli-fi novel with sound science and a hero meteorologist, earning The Weathermaker 3.5 out of 5 stars. The Weathermaker is $16.95 in paperback from Amazon.
Enjoy the reads, either for yourself or as gifts for the weather lovers in your lives.