Sunday, August 16, 2020

On the Great and Terrible Hurricane of 1938, And the Lone Forecaster Who Predicted Its Deadly Path

As laid out in late May:
...As for how to bet:
It looks like we're going to have a second wave.
And perhaps Ruth Bader Ginsburg has to get deathly ill to mobilize the base.
And a market crash.
Hurricane season looks to be above average.
Maybe Iran is convinced it might help to shoot at something.
Since that was posted:
So here's a story from LitHub:
It had been exceptionally rainy during the summer of 1938 in the Northeast, but Wednesday, September 21 was shaping up to be a nice reprieve, starting out warm and mostly sunny, promising to be a beautiful day. Despite the pleasing weather, however, the news was full of storm clouds on the horizon. A little more than a week earlier, announcers at CBS Radio had set the stage for the German chancellor’s address to a Nazi rally in Nuremberg by telling their listeners, “The entire civilized world is anxiously awaiting the speech of Adolf Hitler, whose single word may plunge all of Europe into another World War.”

In the ensuing days, the United States and the rest of the world got healthy doses of Hitler’s vitriol and his ruthless determination to take back the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia with three million ethnic Germans that had been stripped from Austria by the Treaty of Saint-Germain at the end of World War I. Readers of the New York Times on September 21 were given page after page of unnerving reports and commentary about Hitler’s aggressive stance and his ultimatum that Czechoslovakia turn over the region, or else he would take it by force. Czechoslovakia’s purported allies, France and England, were actively debating whether to abandon their pledge to defend Czechoslovakia against foreign aggression—in this case from Germany—and later that day they did just that, siding with Hitler. This move paved the way for the Munich Agreement on September 30, in which England and France essentially gave the Sudetenland to Germany. Lauding the agreement, English prime minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed that it had achieved “peace for our time,” a na├»ve boast that proved to be grossly untrue.
After wading through 26 pages of international and domestic news in the September 21 issue of the New York Times, readers in New York and New England would have seen, nearly hidden in the bottom left-hand corner of page 27, a short article on an approaching hurricane, which had been born a few weeks earlier in Africa. On September 4, a French weather observer at the Bilma oasis in northeastern Niger noted a slight disturbance in the atmosphere, perhaps as mundane as shifting winds or a thunderstorm. Although no one realized it at the time, that disturbance became an easterly wave that morphed into a Cape Verde–type hurricane, which marched across the Atlantic, arousing the attention of meteorologist Grady Norton.

Norton had joined the US Weather Bureau in 1915. His early assignments focused on general forecasting, but he switched to hurricanes after an affecting encounter in late September 1928. On the way to visiting relatives in Florida, he stopped to watch as men shoveled dirt into a trench filled with the decomposing bodies of people killed by the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane. He overheard a woman behind him say, “There’s something wrong with them forecasters or Joe would have got away in time.” Norton later recalled, “I took what that poor woman said to heart, and I knew then and there that what I wanted to do most in life was to prevent such senseless destruction.”

Norton got his big chance when he became chief hurricane forecaster at the bureau’s Jacksonville office just a few months before the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The tragic outcome of that devastating storm, especially the great loss of life, only increased his determination to improve forecasts. So when he heard via radio on September 16, 1938, that a Brazilian steamer, the SS Alegrete, had reported a very low barometric reading and hurricane-force winds about 1,000 miles northeast of the Leeward Islands, Norton sprang into action, focusing all his attention on the approaching storm....