Written in the Big Wind: Hurricanes Spell Doom for Coastal Development
Atop the IRE Financial Building on Dixie Highway in Coral Gables, Florida, Max Mayfield and I sat one midsummer afternoon before a bank of computer terminals, watching information gush cybernetically into the National Hurricane Center. The data flowed in from land stations, ships, aircraft, radar, buoys at sea; it sprinkled down from helium balloons and geostationary satellites into the Cadillac of supercomputer animation systems, McIDAS (for Man-computer Interactive Data Access System). On the screen we were looking at, the North Atlantic was expressing itself in a language of heat, pressure, and motion, and McIDAS was translating this biospheric oratory into data-generated pictures, images we could enhance to our heart’s content. Were we watching a hurricane form? We didn’t know yet. What was certain was that the season of volatility had begun, an anxious time meteorologically and also psychically — a time when people along the Gulf of Mexico, the Eastern seaboard, and, to the south, on the islands of the Caribbean live in real fear of being visited by sudden, violent catastrophe.
A hurricane is the Atlantic (and northeast Pacific) version of a tropical cyclone. Because warm water is the essential ingredient of hurricanes, these storms tend to originate in relatively quiet, equatorial waters. For the most part, they are a major factor only in the western Pacific, where they are called typhoons; in the Indian Ocean, where they are simply called cyclones; and in the warmer waters of the North Atlantic, where they derive their name from the Carib Indian word huracan, “big wind.” Although it is not known precisely why hurricanes form, forecasters such as Mayfield do know that these whirlwind fevers that cool our overheated planet develop from smaller tropical storms that whip up in the doldrums west of the Cape Verde Islands.