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 Niño 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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Quoting presslord:
I read a great book about a year and a half ago about a hurricane which impacted the American revolution...and, likely due to my advancing years, can't for the life of me remember the name of it...if any of you know, I'd appreciate a reminder...


Link
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I read a great book about a year and a half ago about a hurricane which impacted the American revolution...and, likely due to my advancing years, can't for the life of me remember the name of it...if any of you know, I'd appreciate a reminder...
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting RufusBaker:
Whats brewin yall?
According to the experts, nothing.
Member Since: October 9, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 8436
Hi all....

Frankly I am loving the "quiet" season... hope it continues. Would love to have a season w/o beach erosion!
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Whats brewin yall?
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Quoting Weather456:
El Nino 2009 is the first signs that the 2010 hurricane season maybe well above average.

Some of the most active years occur in plus and minus ENSO events, that is the years following and prior to La Nina and El Nino. An example would be 2005 and 1998.


Another good example is 1990, which came one year prior to a moderate to strong El Nino event.
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1113. Ossqss
Quoting rikostan:
Thanks for this excellent review. I am a weather history junkie that can not seem to get enough of books like these. Issac's Storm was another book in the same vein, that I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago.


Here are some books referenced in a previous WU blog. Might be worth a peek.

Link
Member Since: June 12, 2005 Posts: 6 Comments: 8192
Thanks for this excellent review. I am a weather history junkie that can not seem to get enough of books like these. Issac's Storm was another book in the same vein, that I just finished reading a couple of weeks ago.
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Thanks Oss....kinda rainy and muggy here right now...
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1110. Ossqss
Quoting presslord:
...seems to be something off the Carolinas...


Looks like a little steam moving out to sea from Carolina :>

You all should be commended more often for what you do ! Thank you !

Member Since: June 12, 2005 Posts: 6 Comments: 8192
...seems to be something off the Carolinas...
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The Carribean wave will be gone tomorrow.
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That wave at 33 west, 9 north looks very promising right now. Low shear of 5-10 knots and traveling towards some warm water. Saharan dust isn't as bad as people are implying. If this doesn't develop at least it gets rid of alittle more dust for those powerful waves in Africa.
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I have no idea what you're talking about...we have a blog which stormjunkie runs...there are no multiple users...he entered the Main blog and made a statement...I saw it and responded in a lighthearted manner...frankly, I'm not too concerned with what you do or do not like...it's Jeff Masters company...and it's is blog...and both he and the company have enthusiastically embraced our work....if you don't like it, find another place to play....
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Record report for Miami, 95, surpasses the all time high that was set in 1992. That's not a nice comparison.

Our temps in homestead were at 97 for quite a while, but it probably wasn't at the official station.
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1099. Ossqss
Did anyone else in Central or SW florida just check out the ISS pass? It was really cool at -3.6 mag. Thanks for the reminder nrtiwlnvragn, it was well worth the peek.

The interesting thing was a meteor passed across as it was rising on the horizon. I just wanted to see if anyone else saw that or if I should change my soda :)
Member Since: June 12, 2005 Posts: 6 Comments: 8192
Quoting viman:
I know its too low but 7n33w looking pretty interesting - if it can break away from the ITZC it might be worth looking at
Hurricane allen developed around 10 degrees north and 30 degrees west..
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Quoting TheWeatherMan504:
Hmmm, The Easterlies are awfully strong in the Caribbean.

Photobucket
Meaning ?
Member Since: October 9, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 8436
El Nino 2009 is the first signs that the 2010 hurricane season maybe well above average.

Some of the most active years occur in plus and minus ENSO events, that is the years following and prior to La Nina and El Nino. An example would be 2005 and 1998.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Hmmm, The Easterlies are awfully strong in the Caribbean.

Photobucket
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nice feature near 7n 34w. the area is embedded in a cushion of moisture and also has cyclonic turning at the mid and upper levels. sst is about 26 deg C and wind shear is about 5-10 knots.
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hi guys any storms soon did i miss any thing

All is quiet in the tropics. Nothing on the horizon. Check back in a week.
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Ike was more destructive 23 than almost all but 2 hurricanes. And it made landfall as a Category 2.
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Quoting IKE:
Latest 18Z GFS and NOGAPS take waves off of Africa and diminish them by the time they get to 40 west.

NOGAPS shows a lot of activity in the east PAC the next 5-7 days.


The reason why there is an El Nino present
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1087. beell
Thanks, nrt, and Oss.
A good one tomorrow night for Houston at 8:52PM local. A very high pass. Almost straight up and a very bright -4 magnitude. We probably will have clear skies also!

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Quoting viman:
I know its too low but 7n33w looking pretty interesting - if it can break away from the ITZC it might be worth looking at
Not too low P don't think. Like I said before Ivan developed around 9 N I think.
Member Since: October 9, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 8436
1085. viman
I know its too low but 7n33w looking pretty interesting - if it can break away from the ITZC it might be worth looking at
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hi guys any storms soon did i miss any thing
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Quoting AllStar17:


Something to watch, but I do not think it will develop. Environment not all that favorable. Close to land. Still bears watching, just in case it pulls some tricks on us.
Ok, thanks.
Member Since: October 9, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 8436
Thanks for the Space Station info, nrtiwlnvragn. I'll have to have good luck between thunderstorm cells to see it here in Pensacola!
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Quoting WPBHurricane05:
Blanca may be trying to strengthen. Probably brief.


Yeah, big burst of convection, but it will probably die away. 40 mph TS likely at 11 pm update from NHC, unless convection rapidly decreases.
Member Since: June 29, 2009 Posts: 13 Comments: 5315
1080. Ossqss
Quoting nrtiwlnvragn:
Good view of the space station flyover tonight in the southeast. Info for your area


This might help with the viewing also :)

Zip code based viewing info
Member Since: June 12, 2005 Posts: 6 Comments: 8192
Quoting plywoodstatenative:
kori, the problem is that the burst of activity that we saw back in 04 is not one that South Florida or all of Florida wants to see happen. I would rather this be a quiet season.


What we want doesn't effect what actually pans out, though. Unfortunate, but true.

I know how you feel though. Louisiana was hit by three hurricanes in 2005, and three storms in 2008.
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Quoting stormwatcherCI:
Any chance something is developing ?


Something to watch, but I do not think it will develop. Environment not all that favorable. Close to land. Still bears watching, just in case it pulls some tricks on us.
Member Since: June 29, 2009 Posts: 13 Comments: 5315
Blanca may be trying to strengthen. Probably brief.
Member Since: July 31, 2006 Posts: 56 Comments: 8112
Quoting Tazmanian:


BOM ENSO Wrap-up
Link
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Quoting AllStar17:


The same tropical wave we have been monitoring since it entered the Caribbean
Any chance something is developing ?
Member Since: October 9, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 8436
Quoting stormwatcherCI:
Just logged on and what is that in the western caribbean ?


The same tropical wave we have been monitoring since it entered the Caribbean
Member Since: June 29, 2009 Posts: 13 Comments: 5315
Quoting stormpetrol:

17N/84W looks interesting this evening.
Just logged on and what is that in the western caribbean ?
Member Since: October 9, 2008 Posts: 0 Comments: 8436
Good view of the space station flyover tonight in the southeast. Info for your area
Member Since: September 23, 2005 Posts: 15 Comments: 11379
1071. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
Philippines Atmospherical Geophysical Astronomical Services and Administration

Tropical Weather Outlook
========================
At 2:00 AM PhST, Active Low Pressure Area was estimated based on satellite and surface data at 890 km East of Northern Luzon (18.6°N, 131.8°E).
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the way thing been going back E with the cooler temps this year like up in ME i think they will see there 1st snow has soon has lat SEP going in too OCTER this year
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Across the globe an emerging El Nino weather pattern threatens to cause droughts and floods and trigger a spike in planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from burning forests.

El Nino is a warming of tropical Pacific waters that affects wind circulation patterns. Its effects on the global climate vary from one event to the next.

Trying to predict how El Nino will be affected by global warming is a major challenge, scientists say, although data shows El Ninos have become more frequent and more intense over the past three decades. The last event was in 2006.

"I don't think there are any studies that are saying El Nino will become less severe but there is disagreement among the climate models on whether they will become more severe or stay steady," said Matthew England of the Climate Change Research Centre in Sydney.

Getting the forecasting right is crucial for farmers in planning their crops, and even for the oil industry in assessing storm risks in the Gulf of Mexico.

"Certainly we know from past climates that El Nino intensity has varied. As climate changes, we know that the intensity of El Nino can wax and wane over long time scales," he said.

Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said last week an El Nino was almost certain this year and the signs point to one already well underway. A formal declaration could be within days.

One of the biggest threats from El Nino comes from the release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases through the burning of dried out forests.

Scientists say there is very strong correlation between El Nino and drought in Southeast Asia, which has large areas of carbon-rich peat forests.

"People are waiting for appropriate conditions to get rid of the forests," said Pep Canadell of the Global Carbon Project in Canberra.

"So the drier the El Nino the more incentive there is for people to take advantage of those unique conditions," he said. Most of the burning occurs in Indonesia.

During the very intense El Nino of 1997/98, fires in Southeast Asia released between 2.9 billion - 9.4 billion tonnes of CO2, blanketing the region in a choking haze.

The smoke equated to between 15 and 40 percent of global fossil fuel emissions and is credited with causing a spike in global temperatures.

By comparison, average annual emissions from forest fires in Southeast Asia between 2000 and 2006 were 470 million tonnes of CO2, while average fossil fuel emissions for the same period in the region were 543 million tonnes of CO2, said Canadell.

Over the past two years, forest fire emissions have plunged because of wet weather.
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"I think the next El Nino we have here in Southeast Asia is going to be a big one in terms of emissions," said Canadell, whose project issues annual reports on the planet's "carbon budget".

"The longer it takes for an El Nino to come, the bigger the emissions will be because the more people will be keen in burning because they have been waiting all this time."

The effects of the current El Nino, if confirmed, could already be apparent in the weakening of equatorial trade winds that normally blow strongly east to west and in the amount of cloud in the eastern Pacific.

"As El Nino is developing right now we should start to experience its impacts as we speak," said Harry Hendon, a senior climate scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology in Melbourne.

"Historically our biggest impacts are in the (southern) spring. But we start to see them as early as winter," he said.

Normally, warm ocean water is piled up in the Pacific around east Asia causing rain and moisture-laden winds that flow over parts of Australia.

But during El Nino, the warm waters migrate east towards South America, taking the wet weather, often causing floods in Colombia, Ecuador and elsewhere.

DIRE IMPACT

It's unclear how intense the next El Nino will be but Hendon said even weak El Ninos can have a dire impact on rainfall in Australia, depending on where the warm water pool was in Pacific.

"El Ninos that are peaking in the central Pacific have a bigger negative impact on rainfall on Australia than El Ninos that peak further east," said Hendon.

Complicating the picture, scientists now know there are at least two types of El Nino, one in which the warm waters pile up against the Pacific coast of equatorial South America, and the other in which warmest of the waters are in the central Pacific.

Scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States released a study last week showing that periodic warming of the central Pacific was linked to an increase in Atlantic hurricanes, a finding that could change the way oil firms assess storm risks for operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Previously, El Ninos in general were thought to suppress hurricane activity, but the latest research suggests this is only for episodes where the warmest waters are off the South America.

"The fundamental problem is we don't simulate El Nino very well with our existing climate models," said Hendon.

"That makes it a real challenge to run your model for a future climate and see how El Nino will behave

from here

Link


and this i cant wait i i think on july 8th we will have El Nino


Link
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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.

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