Category Archives: Wind

The Deadly Storm

[Originally published as “A History of Hurricanes” in the Waterway Times.]

Galveston, 1900

It was a day of sullen heat and stillness, the sky colored with iridescent scales. Ships steaming through the Gulf of Mexico rolled on an oily swell, their crews sprawled in the scant shade of bulwarks and ventilator cowls. Smoke hung around the ships’ stacks and rained soot on the upper decks. Below decks the engine room gangs worked stripped to the waist, their bodies oiled and sweating in heat approaching 120 degrees. It was September 8, 1900.

The swells broke heavily against the beach at Galveston. Through the morning many of the city’s residents had gathered to watch the thundering surf. They were like spectators at a stranger’s funeral, curious but uninvolved, as the pier crumpled into driftwood. Then the waves climbed the shore, splintering bathhouses and the boardwalk. Several onlookers weren’t quick enough to escape the advancing storm surge. They were the first to die in the Galveston hurricane. Within 18 hours the dead would number more than 6,000.

The surge was the precursor of the storm. The water advanced relentlessly, rapidly, as much as 2.5-feet per hour, until it stood 15 feet above mean sea level. The whole city of Galveston, built upon a barrier island, was nowhere more than 10 feet above the normal height of the sea. The entire city was soon wave-swept.

Surf 10 to 12 feet high battered beachfront houses whose residents had climbed into attics to escape the flooding. Currents generated by the storm surge scoured the sand from around the foundations. Debris—timbers, beams, entire walls—became rams driven by the weight of the storm. Their houses collapsed beneath them.

There was no accurate measurement of the wind strength. Measuring devices were carried away by the storm. Dr. Isaac Cline, meteorologist for the Army Signal Corps stationed at Galveston, estimated the wind more than 100 miles per hour. Terracotta tiles ripped from roofs were fired like shrapnel into the streets. Many of the dead were later found decapitated.

Heavy debris collided with those struggling to stay afloat—to stay alive—in flooded streets where the dead were more numerous than the living. Weakened from exposure, injury, and the relentless hammering of waves, people lost strength, lost hope, and finally lost their grip on whatever piece of flotsam kept them alive. Children were torn from their parents’ grasp. Wives sank from the view of their husbands. An entire orphanage drowned. The bodies of the nuns and children were afterward found still tied together in a futile effort to save themselves.

In the darkness and the driving rain, it wasn’t possible for the suffering to see their own outstretched hand until the lighting illuminated the devastation in fierce and unforgiving detail. Beneath the caterwauling of the wind was another sound like Arctic ice fields breaking in a spring thaw. Entire blocks of houses were splintered stumps. Timbers were grinding in the waves.

After 10 hours the wind began to ease and the storm surge, driven inland, turned back toward the sea. Tons of water hurtled like a freight train into buildings already weakened by wind, waves and battering from the opposite direction. Many of those who had survived the worst of the storm and thought themselves spared died in the final surge of destruction.

Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)
Aftermath of Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In the days following the storm, rescuers found 3,000 bodies in the wreckage of buildings, 1,000 scattered in streets and yards, 500 on the bay shores. Another 500 may have been carried out to sea. On the railroad bridge between Galveston and the mainland, 48 corpses were counted, the bodies embedded like buckshot in the girders. Farther down the barrier island another 1,200 may have died. Almost 18% of Galveston’s population didn’t survive the night.

When the water receded, the dead weren’t only human. Rotting fish littered the streets. The bodies of drowned rats, dogs and cats were piled in windrows. The stench became unbearable in the oppressive heat. To avoid epidemic disease, disposal of the dead was imperative. Anyone capable of working, willing or not, was impressed into service collecting the dead for mass burial at sea, (there was no place ashore to accommodate so many graves), the bodies loaded onto a barge and stacked like cordwood. Many of the corpses were stripped of clothing by the force of the storm. They were counted but never named.

When the barge had put to sea the crew discovered there weren’t enough links of chain and scrap iron onboard to weight each of the bodies individually. Some 700 were thrown overboard tied two and three together. Others weren’t weighted at all. The incoming tide washed many of them ashore again.

Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Men carrying a body on a stretcher, surrounded by wreckage of the hurricane and flood in Galveston, Texas, 1900. (Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

The grisly work of collecting the dead continued by torchlight. Generous rations of bourbon and strong cigars were issued to the workers. They breathed through handkerchiefs soaked in alcohol and smoked cigars to mask the smell. In the sweltering heat that followed the storm, decomposition was rapid. The bodies soon lost the rigidity of rigor mortis and had to be shoveled into carts. The fixed bayonets of the militia were all that kept many of the men at their work. Superintendents of the work gangs finally gave permission to torch the wreckage wherever they found bodies rather than extricate them.

“It was like living in a battlefield. The fuel-oil smoke hung over the city, day and night, and the heavy air was never free of the smell of carbolic acid, of line, of putrefaction.” (Death from the Sea: The Galveston Hurricane of 1900, Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr.) despite the presence of so much death, there were no vultures. The carrion eaters were also victims of the storm.

Looters found despoiling the dead were summarily executed by the militia—stood against the nearest wall or pile of debris if no wall was handy and shot without the hindrance of a trial. The same brutal justice was delivered to amateur photographers. “Word received from Galveston today indicates that Kodak fiends were being shot down like thieves. Two, it was stated, were killed yesterday while taking pictures of nude female bodies.” (Dallas News, September 14, 1900.)

Wind

Like wind – In it, with it, of it. Of it just like a sail, so light and strong that, even when it is bent flat, it gathers all the power of the wind without hampering its course.
Like light – In light, lit through by light, transformed into light. Like the lens which disappears in the light it focuses.
Like wind. Like light.
Just this – on these expanses, on these heights.
―Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 1963

The Economy of Sail

My wife isn’t keen on the idea of hauling freight under sail. When I begin talking about the inevitable decline in oil production and the relentless rise of energy costs, her eyes glaze and her attention strays to something more interesting like the annual yield of winter wheat in the Ukraine.



She’s not entirely convinced our future is an economy of scarcity.


 

And frankly, I’m her husband. Why should she believe me? It isn’t even my idea, hauling cargo under sail, but it’s an idea that resonates.

There already are people delivering produce to market across the Puget Sound from the organic farms of Sequim to the docks of Ballard. They pile their produce onto the deck of a Catalina 34. It’s not the most seaworthy arrangement. Any offshore sailor would cringe at the sight but there’s not a lot of cargo space on a fiberglass production boat. You use the tools at hand until better tools are available.

Soliton
The Soliton carrying produce to market across the Puget Sound. Photo credit: Ballard News-Tribune. A soliton a mysterious wave that can travel without dissipating energy through non-linear systems, behaving both like a particle and a wave.


A better tool might be a wooden schooner designed for the trade with wide beam, broad decks, large hatches and a cargo hold. A broad beam provides stability and cargo capacity on deck and below. (Schooners often carried deckloads of lumber or livestock—sheep or pigs or even cattle in temporary pens rigged on deck.) And wooden construction relies upon a renewable resource easily repaired and commonly available in the Pacific NW. As well, the harvesting and shaping of wood can be done with little dependence upon fossil fuels if you have none.

It would be lovely to see the Sound fill with working sail again, patched and threadbare sails but still serviceable, standing out to sea or working inshore at the end of day, the westering sun silhouetting their squat hulls and pedestrian rigs like a flock of sea birds settling on the water. Lovely, perhaps, but it begs the question—why?

A schooner leaves little wake or impact upon the earth by its passage. It’s remarkably self-contained, efficient, and cost effective if it isn’t competing against time. The conceit of time—time as money—unmade the age of sail and replaced it with the machine, the age of internal combustion. But the machine has proved a less human tool.



A schooner’s schedule isn’t a promise but a proposition, a negotiation with wind and weather and current.


 

There is a grace in shaping your course by wind and current, reaching your destination through skill and persistence, acknowledging the wider world rather than willfully disregarding it but the economy of sail can’t compete against cheap oil and a predictable schedule. As oil becomes increasingly expensive and then increasingly difficult to buy at whatever cost, sail becomes a more attractive method of transport. And, I’d argue, a more human method.

I think the question isn’t whether commercial sail will become viable again but when. My guess is sooner rather than later. So many significant factors—climate change, population density, peak oil production, the scarcity of arable land and clean water—are converging to create a perfect storm of change. That storm will overtake us unprepared. We’ll remain convinced of the certainty of our lives until they’re changed forever in an instant and only afterwards will it seem self-evident. Perhaps that’s by design.

GloucesterSchoonerFestival2
Photo credit: Gloucester Schooner Festival. 

Windthrow

We had expected a strong wind, and we had no idea what to expect. NOAA forecasts indicated a front with steep pressure gradients. We had bought the house among the tall trees only a few months before. The wind had always been muted among the Douglas-fir and Western Red Cedar, passing distantly through the crowns of trees several hundred feet tall and several hundred years old. We had never experienced a windstorm among the trees. Until that night.

That night the wind raged among the trees, demented. Branches broke with the sound of small arms fire; entire trees fell to the ground with the sound of artillery. That night the sky was at war with the earth.

In the morning the ground was concealed beneath layers of sheared Olympic_Blowdown_3evergreen branches. Both roads leading to the highway were blocked by downed trees, some tightly entangled as if for support but overtaken by the same fate. Houses had been stove like wooden hulls dashed upon the rocks. Enormous trees littered the ground, sticks scattered in a children’s game. Until that morning I hadn’t realized the vulnerability of trees.

Trees don’t always die singly. Sometimes entire forests die in a single tempest. In January 1921 a windstorm swept the Olympic Peninsula and felled billions of board feet of timber, the equivalent of 20% of the annual US consumption by one estimate; enough lumber to build 600,000 wood frame homes. There was an eye witness.

We left the machines and started to run down the road toward a space in the forest where the timber was lighter. Just after leaving the car, I chanced to look up and saw a limb sailing through the air toward us; I caught Mrs. Hill by the hand and we ran; and instant later the limb, which was about 12 inches in diameter, crashed where had stood. In three or four minutes we had climbed over two immense tree trunks and reached the place in which I thought was our only chance to escape serious injury or possibly death. The southeast wind roared through the forest, the falling trees crashed to the ground in every direction from where we stood. Many were broken off where their diameter was as much as 4 feet. A giant spruce fell across the roadway burying itself through the planks within 10 feet of where we stood. Three tops broke off and sailed through the air, some of the trees fell with a crash, others toppled over slowly as their roots were torn from the earth.

Huge stands of hemlock were “literally torn from the ground and tossed into impenetrable tangles.” An entire herd of 200 Roosevelt elk were killed by falling timber. The storm was afterwards known as the Olympic Blowdown of 1921.

It’s called windthow by scientists who study the destructive effect of wind upon trees but blowdown is still the common Olympic_Blowdown_2name in the Pacific NW. Windthrow can result from any number of reasons: weakness induced by disease; reduced holding power of saturated soil; shallow root structure; the impact of falling trees; or the overwhelming strength of the wind. During the Olympic Blowdown the winds were measured in excess of 100 miles per hour – hurricane strength.

Now when I hear the wind moving through the canopy of tall trees, when I see the trees bend and sway in the wind, I think of them differently. Once I thought them impervious. Now I know they’re vulnerable, individually and en masse. Now I know that living among them is both a cause for wonder and concern.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]