Opening Note: I began writing this book review on Wednesday September 12, having put it off from Monday when I had originally planned to compose the first draft. Try as I might, however, the un- natural disaster events of Tuesday in New York City and Washington made writing about natural disasters most difficult. It is a shame that I am finding it hard to write this, as Hurricane Watch is one of the best books I have read this year. My apologies to the authors and publisher.
Watching the rescue operations at the World Trade Center from on-the-scene video footage from the US national networks, my thoughts skipped back in time to 1900 in Galveston, Texas when hurricane winds and storm surge crushed that city, burying many in the rubble and killing 8,000 (with some reports estimating 12,000 dead) -- America's greatest single disaster. How different the pictures a century apart, and yet how similar the emotions must have been.
Since that day in Galveston, the work to improve hurricane detection and forecasting so that residents could be adequately forewarned has made incredible strides. In Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth by Dr Bob Sheets and Jack Williams, we see the history of that work unfold.
Intense tropical storms, among nature's most sustained fits of fury, have long struck fear into the residents of islands and coastal areas in tropical and sub-tropical regions around the world. In the western Atlantic Ocean basin, including the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, natives told Columbus that such storms were the work of the storm god harakan. As Europeans sailed and colonized the Americas, they increasingly encountered the storm we now call hurricane, and the need for warning and understanding of these storms began a march now five centuries old.
Combining an historical sense of storm impacts with the development of our scientific understanding of these great natural heat engines, Hurricane Watch: Forecasting the Deadliest Storms on Earth, is a well written guide to the hurricane. And while the authors have not produced the "ultimate guide to the ultimate storm" heralded on the book cover (no single volume, in my opinion, could ever do so), Hurricane Watch is perhaps the best popular, general book on hurricanes I have read.
Authors Dr Bob Sheets and Jack Williams bring considerable talents and experience to Hurricane Watch. Dr Sheets has over four decades of meteorological expertise, most in the research and forecasting of hurricanes, culminated in many years as Director of the US National Hurricane Center in Miami, Florida. His collaborator Jack Williams, a native Floridian and award-winning science journalist, is the founder and editor of the popular USA TODAY Weather Page.
Utilizing their experise and a strong desire to educate the public on the dangers posed by hurricanes, Sheets and Williams have produced an outstanding overview of the story behind our current knowledge of hurricane science and the development of the effective early detection, tracking, forecast and warning system that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the past half century.
The authors begin their narrative with Columbus' voyages to the New World, suggesting he may have been the first European in 1502 to ever issue a hurricane warning, and then take us through the major impacts and increasing understanding of these storms to the start of the Nineteenth Century. The book focuses predominately on Atlantic hurricanes and only moves into the Pacific and Indian Ocean basins when required for connections to the scientific investigation, or when a hurricane sibling (typhoon or cyclone) influenced American interest such as the World War II encounter of the American Pacific fleet with intense typhoons.
The watershed year of 1900 brought the tragedy at Galveston: 8000 or more dead from hurricane winds and storm surge. The greatest American natural disaster brought renewed interest for the understanding and forecasting of these storms. From here, Sheets and Williams take us through the developments, scientific and administrative, that have lead to the current forecast and warning systems that saves countess lives each year.
In telling the story of the past half century, they look in more depth at three specific aspects: aircraft reconnaissance (both authors have flown with the Hurricane Hunters), considerations of hurricane control potential prevalent in mid-century, and computer modeling efforts toward improved forecasting. The penultimate chapter takes an in-depth look at Hurricane Andrew and its impact on south Florida from the perspective of several first hand accounts. The final chapter opens the door to the new century and looks at several avenues which may further increase our understanding and response to hurricanes in the coming decades.
Reading Hurricane Watch, I was struck with the similarities between this book and Tom Grazulis' Tornado, published earlier this year. Both are extremely well-written and cover the history of our understanding of storms and the development of warning systems.
Perhaps because of this, I found the lack of chapters on hurricane safety and hurricane myths and misconceptions disconcerting, particularly given the authors' obvious concern for emergency planning and education. The detailed chapter on Hurricane Andrew provided an ideal opportunity to launch a discussion on many issues of hurricane safety and our continued vulnerability to hurricane dangers.
I also felt a few additional diagrams would have further enhanced the presentation, particularly since William's USA TODAY Weather Page (and his The Weather Book) is characterized by its clear, informative graphics. Except for a few hurricane track maps and a single introductory hurricane feature diagram, all other illustrations are photographs or art works which do little to help explain the nature of the hurricane.
Despite a few shortcomings, Hurricane Watch by Dr Bob Sheets and Jack Williams is the hurricane book I will recommend as the best popular overview of hurricanes for a wide audience. It was an enjoyable book to read as well as very informative.
If you have a weather or storm afficionado on your holiday or other gift list, Hurricane Watch is a sure winner. Combine it with a copy of Tom Grazulis' Tornado and double their pleasure.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
September 15, 2001