Island in a Storm: a book review

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

Share this Blog
2
+

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

Reader Comments

Comments will take a few seconds to appear.

Post Your Comments

Please sign in to post comments.

or Join

Not only will you be able to leave comments on this blog, but you'll also have the ability to upload and share your photos in our Wunder Photos section.

Display: 0, 50, 100, 200 Sort: Newest First - Order Posted

Viewing: 1019 - 969

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26Blog Index

Tropical Update
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1018. lakeEFX
Well, I thought that video was cool.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting sporteguy03:


When you say late how late 456, Late July or early August?


I choose dates after the normal expectant of the first named storm, July 11. But the bulf of those years were July 20 and later.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1016. ozprof
Looks like that mass to the east of the Philippines is trying to spin up. Seems like there is a lot of convection as well, so it could develop into something.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting TexasHurricane:
So, is this year suppose to be less storms El Nino or the more storms one? (the "new El Nino")
The "new el niño" produces less storms than average, but more landfalls.
Member Since: December 1, 2006 Posts: 2 Comments: 3631
Quoting PensacolaBuoy:
Tornadoes are like OhioCanes, I guess.


lol nice video pensacola, i bet that conductor freaked out after that
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting OhioCanes1667:


What does that have to do with the Tropics or this blog?


Its weather related so its valid.
This is a WEATHER blog not just a tropical cyclone blog.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24485
Tornadoes are like OhioCanes, I guess.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting PensacolaBuoy:
Check out this video: freight train versus tornado! Link


What does that have to do with the Tropics or this blog?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1010. 19N81W
well with the shear forcast and already really slow start I wonder if we will get any at all?...has it ever happened? I dont mean one spinning out in the middle of the Atlantic but a season with no landfalls?
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Check out this video: freight train versus tornado! Link
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Acemmett90:

its not even a td it looks liek somthing i ate and craped out lol


That has to be the crudest thing I've ever seen posted on this blog.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1007. Drakoen
CFS monthly precip forecast calling for below normal rainfall across the Gulf Coast states with the exception of South Florida:
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1006. Drakoen
Quoting HurricaneSwirl:


well look at it this way, nothing at all will form if shear keeps up like this lol.


Expect shear to continue to be above-average in conjunction with El Nino:
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Acemmett90:

oh great!! that aint good news


well look at it this way, nothing at all will form if shear keeps up like this lol.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1004. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
Taz, yes the CMC was looking at that area in their models as potential.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
1003. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
National Hurricane Center
Tropical Cyclone Advisory #7
TROPICAL CYCLONE BLANCA (EP032009)
21:00 PM UTC July 7 2009
====================================

At 18:00 PM UTC, Tropical Storm Blanca (1002 hPa) located at 19.7N 116.5W or 420 NM west-southwest of the southern tip of Baja California Peninsula has sustained winds of 35 knots with gusts of 45 knots. The cyclone is reported as moving northwest at 10 knots.

Gale Force Winds
===============
60 NM from the center

Forecast and Intensity
=====================
12 HRS: 20.3N 117.6W - 30 knots (Tropical Depression)
24 HRS: 21.0N 119.0W - 25 knots (Tropical Disturbance)
48 HRS: 22.5N 121.5W - 20 knots (Low Pressure Area)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Weather456:
Almost, every late starter I could find ended up being bad,

1900, 1910, 1952, 1977, 1983, 1992*, 1998, 2000 and 2004

Also 1950, 1954, 1961, 1967 and the list goes on.

1962 started late with no notable storm.


When you say late how late 456, Late July or early August?
Member Since: July 7, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 5415
Quoting TexasHurricane:
So, is this year suppose to be less storms El Nino or the more storms one? (the "new El Nino")

El Nino is just one factor in cyclogenesis in the Atlantic Basin. You also have to factor in SSTs, NAO, SAL outbursts, how the loop current shapes up, and simple luck.
Member Since: August 3, 2008 Posts: 16 Comments: 5890
95E in the makeing???

Member Since: Posts: Comments:
999. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
Japan Meteorological Agency

Tropical Weather Disturbance (1800z 07JUL)
===========================================
At 3:00 AM JST, Low Pressure Area (1006 hPa) located at 15.0N 130.0E has sustained winds of 20 knots and is reported as almost stationary
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Weather456:
Eastern Pacific life expectancy this year seems low.


That's also unusual for a classic el nino..
imo most late starting seasons end up to be bad
because all that energy and heat stored in the
ocean for so long... means any storm that DOES
form is gonna be big. I think this season will
be unique, not like 2004 or 2006. if this was like 2006 the epac and west pacific would be more active but if this was like 2004 then we would have a different type of el nino in place.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
----
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
So, is this year suppose to be less storms El Nino or the more storms one? (the "new El Nino")
Member Since: July 2, 2009 Posts: 0 Comments: 2811
With Frances and Jeanne, down here in Lake Worth, not a lot of property damage. But the bad part was no electricity for weeks and weeks. And I live behind a Publix, who put all their rotting food outside - with no trash pick up. Talk about rats!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
990. HadesGodWyvern (Mod)
Joint Typhoon Warning Center

Tropical Disturbance Summary (1900z 07JUL)
========================================
An area of convection (99W) located at 16.7N 133.4E or 465 NM north-northwest of Yap. Recent animated infrared imagery shows several pockets of deep convection embedded in a broad area of weak circulation with a poorly defined center. Water vapor imagery, however, shows the area has very good upper level equatorward outflow out of the southeast quadrant that is starting to become enhanced by a tropical upper tropospheric trough in the east. A 0930z Quikscat pass shows an enlongated surface trough extending from the coast of Luzon to the east-southeast towards Yap.

Maximum sustained winds near the center is 12-17 knots with a minimum sea level pressure of 1008 MB. The potential for this disturbance to form into a significant tropical cyclone within the next 24 hours is POOR.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
In 2004, Alex formed on July 31...and '04 was a horrible season for South Florida. Frances and Jeanne coming ashore at almost the same spot, unbelievable!
Member Since: Posts: Comments:


There will always be more Blobs :)

L8R
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Eastern Pacific life expectancy this year seems low.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
boys....can't you even find a blob to wishcast?....i'm losing faith in the younger generation
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Almost, every late starter I could find ended up being bad,

1900, 1910, 1952, 1977, 1983, 1992*, 1998, 2000 and 2004

Also 1950, 1954, 1961, 1967 and the list goes on.

1962 started late with no notable storm.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
El Nino years tend to start off early. Seasons like this year and 2004 didn't.
Member Since: July 8, 2005 Posts: 259 Comments: 24485
"and ended up with 7 named storms, 8 in total."


we had one unnamed storm??? ;o)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quote from the page -- This gives some interesting results. First of all, note that the WPac, NIndian, and South come from JTWC advisories and may not be entirely accurate. The canonical example is Typhoon Nancy of the 1961 Pacific typhoon season which is credited with 215mph sustained winds. With that caveat, the highest-ACE storms of all time (those with > 70 ACE) are:

Typhoon Nancy 1961 WPac 77.3
1899 Hurricane San Ciriaco 1899 Atlantic 73.6
Hurricane John 1994 EPac 70.6
Hurricane Ivan 2004 Atlantic 70.4
Typhoon Paka 1997 EPac / WPac 70.2

Where is Tip ? Did not see the other reference either, may not be updated/
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting Weather456:


very interesting question. While I do not expect El Nino Summer 09 to affect the hurricane season like 1997 or 1992, I do not expect one of those years (Modoki) either. Modoki years start with warming in the Central Pacific and head east towards South America but in classic years the warming starts near S America and then head west towards the Central Pacific due to the progression and reponse to an equatorial kelvin wave

Probably 2002 or 2006.

But what makes 2009 different from recent El Nino years is the low early season activity. Probably what help sparked this recent debate on Modoki El Nino since 2004 started late.

A classic El Nino



AH, virtually every area in the atlantic that is 2 degrees above normal is above 20N Most places below that are below normal. I also
see the blob of red off of south america and I can see it growing westward with that orangish line across the equator in the pacific. thanks, i can see the classic el nino perfectly now. :)
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting all4hurricanes:
Ioke had a higher ACE index than any other storm with 82 ACE
Quoting all4hurricanes:
Ioke had a higher ACE index than any other storm with 82 ACE
I remember that 3 years ago, but that normal because the Pacific Ocean are at least twice bigger than the Atlantic.
1997 hurricane season had 4 named storms by July 26, talk about active start and yet nothing in August and 1 in September and ended up with 7 named storms, 8 in total.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Typical El Nino year 1992

However, the season got off to an early start when Subtropical Storm One formed in April, being the first recorded storm to form in this month until the 2003 season. Although the season had an active start, it had a slow end.
Member Since: Posts: Comments:
Quoting StSimonsIslandGAGuy:
Hurricanes with ACE greater than 50 since 1950

Hurricane Dog (1950) 62.5755
Hurricane Carrie (1957) 62.5925
Hurricane Donna (1960) 64.5525
Hurricane Esther (1961) 52.1550
Hurricane Inez (1966) 54.5825
Hurricane Allen (1980) 52.2775
Hurricane Luis (1995) 53.9400
Hurricane Isabel (2003) 63.2800
Hurricane Ivan (2004) 70.3800


Below is the link for the ACE for every hurricane since 1851. Take it for what it is worth, since intensity estimates for tropical systems at sea before World War II is questionable at best.

During 1967-1994 there was only ONE hurricane with an ACE above 50.

Link

So from Inez to Isabel, Luis had the higher ACE.
Acemmett90 - Wave looking decent. Not in a climatology favored area, but it does need to be monitored.
Member Since: June 29, 2009 Posts: 13 Comments: 5315
Quoting HurricaneSwirl:


Yeah, atlantic storms of 2005 were almost all close
to home storms, with the exception of
most of the greek storms.

btw this is the LAST question, lol. Do you think we're setting up for an El nino Modoki? I see the whole Central pacific and west pacific are just as yellow as the east pacific in the sst anomalies


very interesting question. While I do not expect El Nino Summer 09 to affect the hurricane season like 1997 or 1992, I do not expect one of those years (Modoki) either. Modoki years start with warming in the Central Pacific and head east towards South America but in classic years the warming starts near S America and then head west towards the Central Pacific due to the progression and reponse to an equatorial kelvin wave

Probably 2002 or 2006.

But what makes 2009 different from recent El Nino years is the low early season activity. Probably what help sparked this recent debate on Modoki El Nino since 2004 started late.

A classic El Nino

Member Since: Posts: Comments:

Viewing: 1019 - 969

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26Blog Index

Top of Page

About

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

Local Weather

Overcast
62 °F
Overcast