by Doug Ward

DECEMBER 2008-In North America, hurricane season stretches through the summer and early autumn. During this time of the year, the latest storms often make headlines. In 2008 for example, Hurricane Gustav reached the coast of Louisiana on September 1, temporarily upstaging the Republican National Convention in news reports.


There were eight official hurricanes in the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season. Meteorologists meticulously observed their paths, continuously rating their strength in categories from one to five. As with Hollywood celebrities, their every move was chronicled in detail.


But in contrast to Hollywood celebrities, the status of these big "windbags" is not overblown. Hurricanes can cause massive disruption over great distances. Although we live hundreds of miles from the ocean, we were reminded of that fact recently. On September 14, 2008, high winds coming from the final stages of Hurricane Ike felled trees throughout southern Indiana and Ohio, knocking out electric power over a wide area. In our neighborhood in Oxford, Ohio, the electricity was out for almost two days, the longest power outage I have ever experienced. The village of Somerville, eight miles from Oxford, was without electricity for over a week. Ike's last gasp was a mighty one.


We can be very thankful for our current capacity to detect and track the progress of these dangerous storms. Today when a hurricane approaches a populated area, the inhabitants generally have sufficient warning to evacuate to a safe location. The situation was much different in the early days of the United States, when hurricanes arrived unannounced and often claimed many lives. Writer Tony Williams vividly conveys this contrast in his new book Hurricane of Independence (Sourcebooks, Inc., Napierville, Illinois, 2008). Williams, who holds a master's degree in history from Ohio State University, takes readers back to 1775, when America's War of Independence was just beginning. Against the backdrop of the storm of revolution that was sweeping through Britain's American colonies, he reports on two Atlantic hurricanes that made their journeys about ten days apart in September of that year.


Historical Detective Work

In the late eighteenth century, knowledge of what hurricanes were, where they came from, and how they traveled was very limited. Benjamin Franklin, an avid observer of weather patterns, had made a fundamental insight in 1750: Hurricanes tend to travel in the direction opposite the prevailing winds. But scientific tracking of the paths of hurricanes was still far in the future. As a result, one must do some painstaking historical detective work to retrace the approximate path of a hurricane from over two hundred years ago. Williams weaves together information from newspaper accounts, letters, diaries, journal articles and books to bring to life the story of the two September 1775 storms.


The first of the two hurricanes, the one referred to in the book's title, reached the coasts of North Carolina and Virginia on September 2. The ports at New Bern, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia, were especially busy that September. The First Continental Congress had decided the previous year that exports to Great Britain would not be allowed after September 10, 1775, and tobacco planters were hoping to send out one last shipment of their crop before the deadline. Their plans were thwarted by the hurricane.1 High storm surges from the gale destroyed goods that were stored in harbor warehouses awaiting export. The rushing waters also ran many ships aground and sank others. The crews on those ships were the people most endangered by the storm. The death toll is estimated to have been two hundred or more.


The hurricane hit Norfolk at a time of rising tensions between people loyal to the king and those who supported the revolution. Ironically, proponents of American liberty from British tyranny were upset at Lord Dunmore, the Virginia Governor, for threatening to liberate Virginia's slaves.2 When the hurricane caused a British warship, the Otter, to run aground at Hampton, a mob attacked the ship, setting it on fire and seizing two runaway slaves who were on board (pp. 40-41).


By the time the storm reached Williamsburg, it was beginning to slow down. Trees were uprooted and crops damaged at the Virginia capital, but no lives were lost. Continuing north, the hurricane dumped heavy rain on the Maryland capital of Annapolis on the night of September 2. From the state house, which was under renovation, "hundreds of pieces of copper sheeting were jarred loose and sent flying as deadly objects into the city" (p. 85).


On September 2 some members of the Virginia delegation to the Second Continental Congress were en route to Philadelphia, where the Congress was set to reconvene after an August recess. Their progress was slowed by the stormy weather. The hurricane arrived in Philadelphia on September 3, bringing thunderstorms that caused flooding of the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers. At least the city was protected from lightning damage by widespread use of lightning rods, Benjamin Franklin's wonderful invention.


Cod and Man

Philadelphia seems to have been the last major city hit by the Hurricane of Independence, but the 1775 hurricane season was not yet over. Reports from ships at sea indicate that a second hurricane swept north from the Caribbean on around September 10-12, heading for a destination northeast of the thirteen colonies--Newfoundland.3


Newfoundland's permanent population in those days was only about 12,000, but in the spring and summer, thousands of young men arrived from Great Britain and Ireland to fish for cod. The codfishing business was dangerous but lucrative, providing large supplies of protein-rich dried cod, along with codliver oil and roe, for export to Europe and the islands of the Caribbean.


The fishing season was winding down when a major hurricane, more powerful than the Hurricane of Independence, pounded Newfoundland and the French territory of Saint-Pierre et Miqelon with high winds, torrential rain, and huge storm surges said to be as high as thirty feet. Some seven hundred boats were destroyed by the storm, and an estimated four thousand people, mostly fisherman, lost their lives. The Codfisherman's Hurricane, as Williams calls it, is one of the deadliest Atlantic hurricanes on record.


Contrasting Attitudes

Much has changed since 1775. Williams observes that those who survived the two hurricanes were simply grateful to be alive. Today, with our greater scientific capabilities, we have higher expectations. We feel free to complain about a temporary electrical outage or criticize government hurricane relief efforts.


Unfortunately, our higher level of scientific knowledge has not been accompanied by any increase in wisdom or understanding. In 2004, political opponents of American President George W. Bush began blaming him for that year's hurricanes. Believing in claims that manmade global warming was causing an increase in the frequency and severity of hurricanes, and charging that the President had done nothing to curb global warming, they deemed him responsible for the storms.


This strange reasoning is based on faulty scientific assumptions. Leaving aside the question of mankind's alleged influence on temperatures, hurricane experts have found no relationship between temperatures and the hurricane cycle.4 This reasoning also reflects the current desire to find someone to blame-and if possible, to sue-for any misfortune that occurs, and to see government legislation as a way to treat any problem.


More fundamentally, the idea of blaming a human government for hurricanes is based on a mindset unwilling to accept the fact that there are many things beyond human control. Such a mindset wildly overestimates mankind's capabilities and position in the cosmos.


This sort of distorted view seems to be all too prevalent today.  Before the November 2008 election, posters on the Miami University campus proclaimed, ``This Election Could be the End of Global Warming---Vote!''  These posters took their cues from Barack Obama, who promised during his campaign to control the level of the world's oceans.  (Someone should point out to Mr. Obama that his jurisdiction as President will not include control of the sun's energy output.)  Perhaps these claims are simply part of the typical hyperbole of a political campaign---at least I hope so.  It would be a shame if the new President and his supporters seriously harbored such delusions.   

Williams documents the fact that in 1775, many people saw a hurricane as an opportunity for prayer, reflection, and repentance.  Although their worldview could be described as ``prescientific,'' I believe it also was more firmly grounded in reality than current views that wrongly assess the relative places of God and man in the overall scheme of things.  For me, the greatest lesson provided by the story of the Hurricane of Independence and the Codfisherman's Hurricane is a reminder of that reality.  Our forefathers recognized and sought the real Source of protection and solutions, and we would do well to follow their example. 


1The September 10 deadline was later waived for exporters who had been prevented by the hurricane from making their final shipments.

2Two months later, Dunmore did indeed offer freedom to any slave who would become a soldier on the British side (p. 43).

3Some writers have assumed that the Newfoundland hurricane was a later stage of the earlier storm, but Williams makes a strong case that there were two separate hurricanes.

4On this point see for example chapter 3 of Lawrence Solomon's book The Deniers (Richard Vigilante Books, 2008).

Issue 25




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