Island in a Storm: a book review

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:19 PM GMT on July 06, 2009

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Island in a Storm tells the riveting story of one of America's greatest hurricane disasters--the ravaging of Louisiana's Isle Derniere by the notorious Last Island Hurricane of 1856. If you haven't heard of Isle Derniere, there's a good reason why--the 13 - 18 foot storm surge of the Category 4 Last Island Hurricane completely submerged the 24-mile long, 5 to 6 foot high barrier island, which lay 5 miles off the central Louisiana coast. The resulting erosion by the pounding waves and wind-driven currents stripped away huge amounts of the island's sand, cutting a new channel through the 1/2-mile wide island. The author tells us, "During the 1856 hurricane, Isle Derniere was pushed beyond a tipping point from which it could not recover". Continued erosion during the 150 years since the 1856 hurricane has reduced the land area of Isle Derniere to less than 22% of what it once was (Figure 2).

The author
The book's author is Dr. Abby Sallenger, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey's Storm Impact research group, which investigates how the coast changes after extreme storms. The book is very clearly the work of a methodically-minded scientist, as the book quotes heavily from a broad range of historical sources throughout the text. Sallenger includes 50 pages of detailed notes and references at the end of the book. I found that the quotes were well-chosen and illuminating, and added a 19th-century feel to the book.


Figure 1. Track of the Last Island Hurricane.

A history book
Island in a Storm starts out as a history book, as we are introduced to the various people who will eventually be caught in the great hurricane. Sallenger spends six of the book's sixteen chapters setting the stage for the great disaster, and this portion of the story may drag on too long for readers who are disinterested in the history of Louisiana in the mid-1800s. I found it fascinating to read about the Yellow Fever epidemic that hit the region during 1856, which drove many of New Orleans' wealthy residents to seek sanctuary on the seemingly safe ocean front retreat of Isle Derniere for the summer. We are introduced to about six sets of characters during this initial portion of the book, and it does take a bit of effort to keep everyone straight as the book progresses into the storm's fury. The introductory chapters also devote a few pages to the meteorology of how hurricanes work, and the competing theories of the time. These pages do a good job giving the necessary background to understand what happened to Isle Derniere.

A survival and adventure tale
When we reach the main portion of the book, Sallenger presents a fast-paced and riveting description of some remarkable survival tales from this great disaster. We hear the story of how the hurricane's winds gradually tore apart all the homes and hotels on Isle Derniere, leaving the hundreds of people at the mercy of the storm surge. Many were swept away, but some survived harrowing voyages on pieces of debris during a dark and terrifying night. One group of survivors on the island managed to live by hanging on to a children's carousel, whose central post had been driven deep into the sand to anchor it. As the wind and water surged the around them, the desperate survivors hung onto the whirligig as it spun around. "The twirling and twisting, the dashing and splashing, the heeling and toeing, the flapping and floundering which ensued, would at any other time have produced a first-class comedy", one of the survivors relates. We also hear the remarkable tale of several ships caught in the storm. The crew of one ship driven aground by the storm leaped off their ship into the roiling storm surge in an attempt to seek shelter on the submerged barrier island. On another ship, "Captain Thompson could now view his cargo of livestock crowded onto the forward half of the main deck. The cows and horses and mules slid astern as the waves lifted and over-topped the bow. White water streamed through their hooves. The animals stumbled forward as the bow fell into holes and side to side as the vessel rolled".

A cautionary tale
The book ends with several chapters devoted to the aftermath of the hurricane. The survivors on the storm-ravaged island were not visited at first by relief ships, but by pirates eager to prey on the dead and the living. Relief eventually reached the 200 or so survivors on the island, and a romance leading to marriage is one happy outcome of the storm's wake.

Barrier islands are terrible places to build human settlements, and "the lesson of the flood was not forgotten," according to one of the survivors. The resorts on Isles Dernieres were never rebuilt. Sallenger notes that "such lessons are forgotten or ignored. In the last century and a half, the Village of Isle Derniere was one of only a few seafront communities that were destroyed or severely damaged in a storm and never rebuilt. The common practice is not only to rebuild structures on devastated coasts but also to make them bigger and more elaborate...We continue in the United States to develop extremely hazardous coastal locations, like the low-lying areas on the Bolivar Peninsula east of Galveston, Texas, that were wiped out in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. The extreme vulnerability of such locations today will only increase as the world's seas rise."


Figure 2. Graphic from Island in a Storm, showing the long-term deterioration of Isle Derniere into multiple islands, now called Isles Dernieres. The island lost 78% of its land area between 1888 and 1988, and the remains of the island migrated 2/3 of a mile northwards. Further destruction of the islands has been arrested by a large-scale dredging project that adds mud and shells from the nearby sea bottom. Image credit: Coasts in Crisis, USGS Circular 1075, 1990.

Summary
Sallenger's first-class story-telling of the remarkable tales of survival during the Last Island Hurricane make this a book well worth reading. My only gripe is that the book could have benefited from better graphics than the few black-and-white figures that are of mediocre quality. Nevertheless, Island in a Storm rates 3 1/2 stars (out of four). It's $16.47 from Amazon.com.

I'll have a new post Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning, when I plan to discuss why some El NiƱo episodes in recent years have had high Atlantic hurricane activity associated with them. As you may have guessed, there is no Atlantic tropical activity worth mentioning, and no models are predicting tropical storm formation over the next seven days.

Jeff Masters

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1269. Gwarnock
2:49 PM GMT on July 09, 2009
An excellent non-fiction hurricane story - I don't know if this was already discussed somewhere among the 1257 current posts on this topic as I am not about to review them all :) I just finished an EXCELLENT book on the 1900 Galveston, TX Hurricane that claimed an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 lives. It includes the beginning of the U.S. Weather Service, the politics involved, the Cuban hurricane experts and how they were ignored and regarded as 'natives' and 'superstitious witch doctors' and our arrogance that cost many lives. Written by Erik Larson from bits of information from various sources (all of which are listed in detail in the back of the book), it is the story of Issac Cline and his rise in the U.S. Weather Service and position in Galvestion, TX. The descriptions of the events preceding, during and after the storm are a little disconcerting due to the deaths and manner of deaths - all backed by records and first hand testimonials that were written down. A good read all the way around. See the book at http://www.amazon.com/Isaacs-Storm-Deadliest-Hurricane-History/dp/0609602330/ref=cm_cr_dp_orig_subj

Geoff
Member Since: February 18, 2003 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
1268. SpicyAngel1072
2:00 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting A4Guy:
456 - thanks for the post...for some reason, I cannot see the 2009 map in the posting - can you mail it (or link) to me? Where are you getting these maps - would like to have the link.
Thanks.


I can't see them to compare them either
Member Since: September 1, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 315
1267. Cavin Rawlins
1:54 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
New blog
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1266. Cavin Rawlins
1:48 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Solar System's Wild Weather

Love this loop

Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1265. scottsvb
1:47 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
There is nothing in the tropics that will develop into a TD in the next 3-4 days @ least. Come back Sunday or Monday even!
Member Since: January 22, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 1719
1264. Cavin Rawlins
1:46 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting A4Guy:
456 - thanks for the post...for some reason, I cannot see the 2009 map in the posting - can you mail it (or link) to me? Where are you getting these maps - would like to have the link.
Thanks.


LINK
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1262. AussieStorm
1:41 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Those 2 TCHP maps make me sudder. this year looks worse than 2005
Member Since: September 30, 2007 Posts: 9 Comments: 15962
1261. A4Guy
1:39 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
456 - thanks for the post...for some reason, I cannot see the 2009 map in the posting - can you mail it (or link) to me? Where are you getting these maps - would like to have the link.
Thanks.
Member Since: June 23, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 668
1260. AussieStorm
1:39 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting IKE:


I was going to post the maps but their dated from May 19th...a little outdated...lol...

try accuweather for TCHP maps.
I'm at work atm and don't have the link.
Member Since: September 30, 2007 Posts: 9 Comments: 15962
1258. RitaEvac
1:36 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
From Houston/Galveston NWS discussion...

Ensemble has been weakly hinting at a
developing coastal surface (inverted) trough over the weekend
that...depending on it's eventual position...could keep rain
chances on the more moderate chance track.
Member Since: July 14, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 9648
1257. stillwaiting
1:35 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Storm:area south of the CV's looks like it might have a little potential???
Member Since: October 5, 2007 Posts: 20 Comments: 4970
1255. Cavin Rawlins
1:30 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
July 8 2005



July 7 2009

Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1254. HurricaneKing
1:29 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Since it's boring.....



MODEL DIAGNOSTIC DISCUSSION
NWS HYDROMETEOROLOGICAL PREDICTION CENTER CAMP SPRINGS MD
221 AM EDT WED JUL 08 2009

VALID JUL 08/0000 UTC THRU JUL 11/1200 UTC


...SEE NOUS42 KWNO ADMNFD FOR THE STATUS OF THE UPPER AIR
INGEST...


00Z/08 FINAL MODEL PREFERENCES...INCLUDING THE ECMWF


ANY INITIALIZATION ERRORS WITH THE NAM AND GFS DO NOT APPEAR TO
SIGNIFICANTLY IMPACT THEIR SOLUTIONS.


...WAVE PASSING OFF THE SOUTHEAST COAST DAY 1...

THE NAM...GEM GLOBAL...AND GFS ARE FASTER AND DEEPER WITH THIS LOW
THAN THE ECMWF...GEFS MEAN...AND 12Z/07 EC ENSEMBLE MEAN. THE
UKMET IS ALSO FASTER...BUT DOES NOT INDICATE THE APPARENT
TRANSITION TO A TROPICAL SYSTEM THAT THE OTHER MORE DEVELOPED
MODELS DO.
WILL RELY ON THE ROBUST CONSENSUS INCLUDING THE
CURRENT GEFS MEAN AND DETERMINISTIC ECMWF...AS WELL AS THE OLD EC
ENSEMBLE MEAN...WHICH KEEP THIS WAVE FLAT.


...COLD FRONT CROSSING THE NORTHERN ROCKIES DAY 1...

THE GFS IS FASTER THAN THE NAM...GEM GLOBAL...UKMET...AND ECMWF TO
BOW OUT THIS BOUNDARY ACROSS THE WESTERN GREAT LAKES DAY 3...DUE
TO ITS EARLIER INCORPORATION OF THE ARCTIC SHORTWAVE PLUNGING WEST
OF HUDSON BAY. WILL CONSIDER THE GFS TO BE A LOW PROBABILITY
OUTLIER...AND RELY ON THE FAIRLY ROBUST CONSENSUS OF THE OTHER
GUIDANCE.


...MODEL TREND GRAPHICS AT
WWW.HPC.NCEP.NOAA.GOV/HTML/MODEL2.SHTML...

...500 MB FORECASTS AT
WWW.HPC.NCEP.NOAA.GOV/H5PREF/H5PREF.SHTML...


CISCO
Member Since: July 6, 2005 Posts: 71 Comments: 2485
1253. A4Guy
1:28 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting Weather456:
The spatial extent of 2009 TCHP also rivals 2005. This is really no surpise since the Atlantic is generally cloud free. But God, if one blob of convection finds 10 knots of shear, it could be bad. Wind shear seems to the moderator of this season.


Do you have any comparison maps you can post showing TCHP in July 2005 and now?
Member Since: June 23, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 668
1252. stillwaiting
1:28 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting KEEPEROFTHEGATE:
1977



hey thats when I was born!!!!,Gooooood morning fellow wonderbloggers,local met said a low could form along the stalled boundry over lower alabama and the panhandle area offshore!!
Member Since: October 5, 2007 Posts: 20 Comments: 4970
1251. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
1:26 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
good day stormw that would be good i listen to bb every thursday night would be interesting to have ya there
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 175 Comments: 54858
1250. kmanislander
1:23 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting TampaSpin:


Mornng Kman........nothing on the Vorticity return on that area at all! Blob like that need watched but, it takes 2-3 days if not longer to get anything spinning in the Lower Levels!


Good day to you Tampa. What I have noticed is that the Caribbean has been developing pockets of low shear near to pockets of high shear which is generally not conducive for development. We have yet to see a high settle right over an area of sustained convection or a large enough area of low shear to give protection to a thunderstorm cluster.

The blob is showing very good upper level divergence but no lower level convergence at all. Again, this has been the pattern this year and that will also not produce a cyclone.

Until these patterns change it is unlikely that we will see a TD form.

Out for now
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 15865
1248. Cavin Rawlins
1:22 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting stoormfury:
456
what the higher TCHP translates to in terms of activity


Really a measure of intensity than numbers. 2009 maybe near normal (10-12 storms) but it seems we are looking at some healthy look storms this year.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1247. stoormfury
1:21 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
the bermuda/ azores high is forecast to weaken ,thereby allowing the the easterlies also to weaken and hence increase tropical activity
Member Since: August 22, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 2720
1246. Cavin Rawlins
1:21 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
The spatial extent of 2009 TCHP also rivals 2005. This is really no surpise since the Atlantic is generally cloud free. But God, if one blob of convection finds 10 knots of shear, it could be bad. Wind shear seems to the moderator of this season.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1245. nrtiwlnvragn
1:20 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Weak, faint, barley visible circulation at ~6N 32W Link
Member Since: September 23, 2005 Posts: 14 Comments: 11274
1244. TheWeatherMan504
1:18 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
The Easterlies in the Caribbean are too strong for Tropical Cyclogenesis.
Member Since: May 18, 2008 Posts: 2 Comments: 1042
1243. stoormfury
1:17 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
456
what the higher TCHP translates to in terms of activity
Member Since: August 22, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 2720
1242. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
1:17 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting Tazmanian:
its vary cold here this AM it got down too 50
cooler than normal here to taz with above normal rainfall locals are startin to call it the year with no summer

we are about 15 degrees cooler than normal daytime highs we should be in high 80's for this time of year and we are barly making it to mid 70's
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 175 Comments: 54858
1241. TampaSpin
1:17 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting kmanislander:


Good morning to you. I just checked conditions at Roatan Island which is very close to the Blob. East winds @20 mph


Mornng Kman........nothing on the Vorticity return on that area at all! Blob like that need watched but, it takes 2-3 days if not longer to get anything spinning in the Lower Levels!
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 179 Comments: 20448
1240. kmanislander
1:17 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Will check back later if anything of significance changes but I am not expecting that to happen in the short term.

Conditions generally still seem to favour a July start to the season but who knows.



Have a great day all.

BFN
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 15865
1239. Cavin Rawlins
1:15 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
2009 TCHP is higher and more widespread than 2008 on July 8.
Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1237. TheWeatherMan504
1:14 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting IKE:


I was going to post the maps but their dated from May 19th...a little outdated...lol...


Yea I saw that. Lack of funding? Or is it North Korea? Link
Member Since: May 18, 2008 Posts: 2 Comments: 1042
1236. kmanislander
1:12 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting weathermanwannabe:


You Da Man (for now)....Good Morning...


Good morning to you. I just checked conditions at Roatan Island which is very close to the Blob. East winds @20 mph
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 15865
1235. weathermanwannabe
1:11 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting kmanislander:
Good morning

Just a quick stop in .

The blob to the N of Honduras is nothing more than rain, at least at this time. Quikscat shows all stright line Easterly winds and the vorticity maps also show no turning at all.

Although shear is low in the Gulf of Honduras it is high immediately East of the blob.


This morning's Quikscat pass


You Da Man (for now)....Good Morning...
Member Since: August 8, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 9329
1234. Cavin Rawlins
1:10 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Current TCHP



Member Since: July 24, 2005 Posts: 407 Comments: 19076
1233. kmanislander
1:10 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Good morning

Just a quick stop in .

The blob to the N of Honduras is nothing more than rain, at least at this time. Quikscat shows all straight line Easterly winds and the vorticity maps also show no turning at all.

Although shear is low in the Gulf of Honduras it is high immediately East of the blob.


This morning's Quikscat pass
Member Since: August 19, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 15865
1232. Tazmanian
1:08 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
its vary cold here this AM it got down too 50
Member Since: May 21, 2006 Posts: 5091 Comments: 115359
1231. KEEPEROFTHEGATE (Mod)
1:06 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
1977
Member Since: July 15, 2006 Posts: 175 Comments: 54858
1230. weathermanwannabe
1:03 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting AussieStorm:

Whats the shear like in the GOMEX atm, if that blob makes it into the GOMEX and the conditions are in its favor, oh i dont want to think what might happen.


20 knots around Bay of Campechee but low North of there....Since it is currently classified as a "wave" by NHC, it will probably keep moving to the West, theoretically, and dissipate over land; I seriously doubt that it is going to survive and make it into the Gulf, but, it seems to be "trying" to inch Northward towards a more favorable sheer environment...We will probably know the answer by this evening...
Member Since: August 8, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 9329
1229. HurricaneSwirl
1:00 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
the hurricane season of 2000 was a late
starter and wasn't bad. The worse was hurricane
keith, but even that wasn't that bad as hurricanes landfalling in certain parts of mexico or central america usually cause extensive deaths, keith didn't.

the hurricane season of 1984 was a late starter and only one hurricane made landfall in the whole basin (which was a cat 2, maybe borderline 3?) i bet i can find many more.
Member Since: July 7, 2008 Posts: 2 Comments: 3237
1228. IKE
12:56 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting CycloneOz:


A named storm has a completely opposite effect you are hoping for in this particular blog.

Sorry...


That's true. Ten times the posts and multiple arguments.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
1227. IKE
12:55 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting AussieStorm:

What is the current TCHP in the GOMEX and Caribean atm? gotta be high in the GOMEX since the skys are relatively clear.


I was going to post the maps but their dated from May 19th...a little outdated...lol...
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860
1226. CycloneOz
12:54 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting hurricaneseason2006:
July 8 wow.

I wish Ana could form so some of you all could shut up.


A named storm has a completely opposite effect you are hoping to see in this particular blog.

Sorry...
Member Since: August 26, 2006 Posts: 10 Comments: 3892
1225. AussieStorm
12:54 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting weathermanwannabe:


The Blob is under considerable sheer right now but it has a pocket of very low sheer to it's North and North East between Cuba and the Yucatan....Not sure if it will be around long enough to make it up there, or, whether it will just die out (causing some considerable mudslide and flooding problems for Honduras)....But, it has been a persistent little Bugger for the last several hours...If is stays stationary/hear current location, the sheer will rip it apart eventually IMHO.

Whats the shear like in the GOMEX atm, if that blob makes it into the GOMEX and the conditions are in its favor, oh i dont want to think what might happen.
Member Since: September 30, 2007 Posts: 9 Comments: 15962
1224. weathermanwannabe
12:52 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
1209. hurricaneseason2006 8:22 AM EDT on July 08, 2009
July 8 wow. I wish Ana could form so some of you all could shut up.


You need to Chill Out please...
Member Since: August 8, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 9329
1222. AussieStorm
12:51 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting IKE:


I don't have time to look right now. Planet Earth goes back a lot further than 30 years.

All I'm saying is, just because it's a slow start does not mean it will be bad for someone. Odds are you're right. But you could be wrong.

I'm glad it's quiet. I hope it stays quiet the rest of the season.

What is the current TCHP in the GOMEX and Caribean atm? gotta be high in the GOMEX since the skys are relatively clear.
Member Since: September 30, 2007 Posts: 9 Comments: 15962
1221. weathermanwannabe
12:47 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting tropicfreak:


How is shear looking ahead of this blob?


The Blob is under considerable sheer right now but it has a pocket of very low sheer to it's North and North East between Cuba and the Yucatan....Not sure if it will be around long enough to make it up there, or, whether it will just die out (causing some considerable mudslide and flooding problems for Honduras)....But, it has been a persistent little Bugger for the last several hours...If is stays stationary/hear current location, the sheer will rip it apart eventually IMHO.
Member Since: August 8, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 9329
1220. IKE
12:46 PM GMT on July 08, 2009
Quoting hurricaneseason2006:
IKE,

Name one hurricane season in the last 3 decades which started late and was not bad.


I don't have time to look right now. Planet Earth goes back a lot further than 30 years.

All I'm saying is, just because it's a slow start does not mean it will be bad for someone. Odds are you're right. But you could be wrong.

I'm glad it's quiet. I hope it stays quiet the rest of the season.
Member Since: June 9, 2005 Posts: 23 Comments: 37860

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.