The autumn season is now well settled in, and over the Great Lakes basin, the main track of the jet stream and several common storm tracks will find their way over the waters of the Great Lakes. The season signals the start of one of the stormiest periods of the year in the region. With the polar front/jet stream overhead, the relative warmth of the Lake waters provides an ideal breeding and energizing ground for storms.
The story of one week of extreme storminess over the Great Lakes is chronicled in David G. Brown's new book: White Hurricane: The Great Lakes Storm of 1913. The storms, which hit in early November of that year, left the greatest toll on ships and sailors ever seen on the Great Lake waters. During this storm, or more correctly series of connected storm events, twelve ships sank in open waters, thirty-one were stranded on rocks or beaches, and at least 270 sailors lost their lives. On land, Cleveland faced on of its greatest natural disasters as over 18 inches of snow piled into drifts large enough to stop train traffic.
While I was reading the book, thoughts of similar books, particularly Isaac's Storm and The Perfect Storm, popped into my head. There were many similar elements to those books in this volume, but to strictly compare them would be unfair to all. White Hurricane deals with marine disaster on fresh waters but the vessels in peril were mostly large lake vessels and not a single fishing boat. Brown makes no attempt to novelize the accounts by adding possible dialogues among the crew, and given the nearly 90 years since the event, he could not interview the families as Junger did in The Perfect Storm. Instead, he weaves the plight of a number of vessels into a multi-faceted narrative, quoting from the historic record where available, the words of those caught in the storm fury.
The similarity with Isaac's Storm is that the catastrophic event took place in the early days of weather forecasting and storm warnings. However, the magnitude of the storms and the lack of a more detailed data field far outstripped the abilities of the time to foresee, and even to see, the magnitude of the storms thrashing the lake waters. Indeed, forecasters lacked any knowledge of upper atmosphere pressure and wind patterns that would have signalled such a potent storm was brewing. Compounding the situation was the lack of radio communications with the vessels to pass along warnings or receive reports of conditions. The only communication with ships on the severity of weather conditions was through nautical storm flags and lights, which lacked the detail and urgency of the situation, posted at harbours and lighthouses.
This book, like Isaac's Storm, shows the incomplete nature of the science of weather forecasting and warning dissemination at the time, and how these catastrophes molded the growth of the science. We came a long way during that century. Unlike Isaac's Storm, the focus of White Hurricane is not on a single person or weather service blunders, but on the fleet of vessels facing the teeth of the storm.
White Hurricane looks at the plight of many of the major vessels lost or damaged by the storm. Brown's accounts are built on the existing historic record, and since many vessels were lost with no survivors, knowledge of their last hours went with them to the lake bed. Thus, Brown could only conjecture, using hindsight and his years of experience sailing the Great Lakes, as to what might have happened to them.
Overall, however, White Hurricane is a very interesting book which provided details of a storm event which I had known about, but of which I knew little detail. The book also paints an clear picture of the shipping industry on the Great Lakes in a time before highways and even railroads serviced many of the shoreline areas. My only criticism of the book is that I did find the chronological sequencing hard to follow at times as the author jumped from account to account of the situation aboard various ships trying to keep the time flow consistent.
This book is another high recommendation for those interested in weather history, or the history of the Great Lakes and the weather that makes life in its basin so fascinating.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
October 9, 2002