We Expect the Government to Save Us from Storms ... We Didn't Always

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Mr. Arsenault is John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. This article is drawn from Paradise Lost: The Environmental History of Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005), ed. Jack E. Davis and Raymond Arsenault. It was published in paperback today.

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On August 16, 1888, a powerful hurricane struck the coast of southeastern Florida. The storm’s maximum sustained winds may have exceeded 100, or even 125, miles per hour, but no one knows for sure. On August 15, the storm battered several of the lower Bahama Islands, inflicting considerable damage and loss of life, but no one in Florida knew about the Bahamians’ plight. On the morning of the 16 th, the residents of Dade County, where the eye first made landfall, scrambled for their lives. Understandably, no one had the time, or the inclination, or the expertise, to measure the barometric pressure, wind speed, eye configuration, or any other measurable aspect of the roaring natural monster that was threatening their community.

A little over a century later, on August 24, 1992, Dade County experienced Hurricane Andrew. The full force of the storm struck the Florida coast at Homestead, at 4:30 in the morning. By that time few individuals in Homestead or anywhere else regarded Andrew as a stranger. Anyone with access to television, radio, or a morning newspaper already knew something about the character and potential of what some were calling “the storm of the century.” A broad array of government officials, both domestic and international, had gathered a wealth of sophisticated data on Andrew, tracking the storm’s evolution from its origins as a small tropical depression near the Cape Verde Islands on August 17, to its designation as a tropical storm by the National Weather Bureau on August 18, to its upgrade to hurricane status on August 23, to its classification as a Category 4 storm on the Saffir/Simpson scale on August 24.

The stark contrast between these two accounts, one vague and incomplete and the other precise and comprehensive, is revealing. These two storms, one private and one public, separated by a century of technological innovation, bureaucratic development, and evolving public consciousness, demonstrate that the character and meaning of hurricanes have changed dramatically in the twentieth century. Prior to 1900, the connection between hurricanes and human societies was essentially private; public agencies rarely became involved in individual or communal struggles for survival, and the press paid only fleeting attention to storms large or small. So-called “acts of God” came and went, and no one held out much hope that human vulnerability to such “natural disasters” could be eliminated. Weathering fierce storms was part of life, plain and simple. Only in the twentieth century, after years of governmental activism, did such resignation give way.

As the account of Hurricane Andrew suggests, by the 1990s a sprawling bureaucracy had turned hurricanes into public events of the first order, bringing the expectation and the promise that government agencies would do everything in their power to protect private citizens and private property from the ravages of cyclonic fury. Working in conjunction with state and local authorities, and buttressed by thousands of print and electronic media sources, Federal officials drew upon an elaborate network of tracking and warning systems, research facilities, educational publications, evacuation plans, relief efforts, and emergency management teams. All of this promoted a sense of administrative mastery and technological control that stood in sharp contrast to the acknowledged unpredictability and vulnerability of earlier eras. While this sense of mastery and control proved to be somewhat illusory in the case of Andrew’s magnitude, few observers questioned the attempt to “manage” the storm. For better or for worse, the shared experience of the “public storm” had become an inescapable part of modern American life.

As an expression of the ethos of mastery and management, the saga of the public storm is primarily a story of post-World War II America. But there is an earlier story of less purposeful development that helps to explain why the institutionalization of the public storm took so long to mature. For more than a century the dominant pattern was one of institutional drift, an inertial legacy that, according to the eminent legal historian J. Willard Hurst, was characteristic of the American experience prior to the second half of the twentieth century. Thus, for a full understanding of the historical evolution and public policy implications of the public storm, we need to pay some attention to the early history of the connections between American meteorology and bureaucracy.

Early hurricane research, like the broader study of weather, was a private affair conducted by self-trained meteorologists such as Benjamin Franklin. In the 1740s, Franklin offered the novel hypothesis that dynamic storm systems, not surface winds, determined the movement of tropical storms. Later researchers, including Thomas Jefferson, tried to extend Franklin’s insights, but government officials did not offer much assistance until 1814, when the Surgeon General ordered daily weather observations at all army posts and hospitals. Three years later, Joseph Meigs, the Commissioner of the General Land Office, asked local land-office registrars to keep daily weather records, but military physicians remained the backbone of the national meteorological effort until after the Civil War.

. In 1849, Joseph Henry, the director of the Smithsonian, announced the creation of a telegraphic warning system that “would solve the problems of American storms.” Despite Henry’s enthusiasm, none of this had much impact on the ability of ordinary citizens to deal with the annual spate of hurricanes. During the 1850s and 1860s, tropical storms came and went with little or no warning, and few, if any, American citizens expected this state of affairs to change anytime soon.

The first real breakthrough came in 1870 when an unlikely combination of events raised hurricane tracking to a new level of sophistication and promise. In February, a Congressional resolution endorsed by President Grant authorized the Secretary of War to institute a national weather service. Two months later, the War Department assigned the task to the Army Signal Service, which in November created a new bureau, the Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. Despite its cumbersome title, this division soon presided over a national network of meteorological reporting stations. 8 The second event took place in Havana, Cuba, where Father Benito Vines, the new director of the Jesuit College of Belen, turned his attention to tropical storm research and the need for a reliable hurricane warning system. The most knowledgeable and imaginative hurricane researcher of his day, Father Vines was the first forecaster to base his calculations on observations of both the lower and upper atmosphere and the first to analyze the seasonal trajectory of tropical storm activity.

Grumbling about the Signal Service’s lack of professionalism and administrative mismanagement turned into a rousing chorus of criticism after the Service failed to predict the record-setting blizzards of 1886 and 1887 and the devastating Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889. As public dissatisfaction with the Signal Service’s weather reporting reached new heights, Congress responded by transferring the government’s meteorological duties to civilian control, creating the United States Weather Bureau within the Department of Agriculture.

The Cedar Key storm in 1896, which eventually killed 114 people and left a trail of destruction from Florida to Pennsylvania, made a great impression on the American public, including presidential candidate William McKinley. Following America’s declaration of war against Spain in 1898, McKinley claimed that he feared hurricanes far more than he feared the Spanish navy. Accordingly, he urged Congress to authorize the creation of a comprehensive hurricane warning system that would protect the Caribbean operations of American military and merchant vessels. The resulting legislation, passed in July 1898, led to the establishment of a Weather Bureau forecasting center at Kingston, Jamaica, and official reporting stations in Cuba, Santo Domingo, Trinidad, Curacao, St. Kitts, and Barbados.

Two years later came the great Galveston, Texas storm of September 1900, which killeed 6,000. It was a public relations disaster. As scholars have shown, the Weather Bureau was complic in the tragedy. Despite repeated observations and bulletins by the Havana tracking stations, no hurricane warning ever reached the city of Galveston, primarily because the Weather Bureau had temporarily banned the cable transmission of Cuban weather reports (ostensibly to prevent “the transmission over Government lines of irresponsible weather information”).

Beginning in 1926, a series of powerful hurricanes disrupted the great Florida Boom, causing extensive damage ($1.4 billion) and loss of life (over 200 lives) in an area that had been all but uninhabited a generation earlier. But the first meaningful step toward increased governmental responsibility, the Mississippi Flood Control Act of 1928, had little to do with hurricanes. It was a second piece of legislation, the River and Harbors Act of 1930--enacted in the wake of the disasterous 1927 Mississippi flood, that expanded the notion that the government could use preventive measures to limit the effects of tropical storms. Among other things, the River and Harbors Act authorized the construction of the Hoover Dike, a massive 35 to 45-foot high concrete ring around south Florida's Lake Okeechobee.

Then in 1935 came the Great Labor Day Hurricaine. One of the most powerful storms in recorded history, the 1935 hurricane carried peak winds approaching 250 miles per hour. The storm struck the Florida Keys just south of Key Largo, where hundreds of World War I Bonus Marchers and Civilian Conservation Corps workers were constructing a highway. Less than 24 hours before the hurricane hit the Keys, the Weather Bureau characterized the storm as a minor tropical disturbance. By the time officials realized it was a major storm they didn't have enough time to notify the workers. Hundreds drowned. Ernest Hemingway, who was then living in Key West, penned a biting essay titled, “Who Murdered the Vets?” “Who sent nearly a thousand war veterans, many of them husky, hard-working and simply out of luck, but many of them close to the border of pathological cases, to live in the frame shacks on the Florida Keys, in the hurricane months?” he asked plaintively.

To some the 1935 Labor Day fiasco provided further proof of nature’s uncontrollable power and the futility of governmental attempts to brook that power. But to most Americans the government’s involvement in the episode reinforced the growing expectation that public officials should play an active role in disaster avoidance and relief. Although this expectation would not be fully satisfied or institutionalized until the 1970s, the combination of expanding governmental authority during World War II and a series of unusually active hurricane seasons during the 1940s raised the “public storm” concept to a new level by mid-century.

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  • This article is drawn from a chapter,"The Public Storm: Hurricanes and the State in Twentieth-Century America," which originally appeared in Wendy Gamber, Michael Grossberg, and Hendrik Hartog, eds., American Public Life and the Historical Imagination (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003. It was just reprinted in Jack E. Davis and Raymond Arsenault, eds., Paradise Lost? The Environmental History of Florida (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).