New Orleans, 2005
I t was an awesome storm. Howling gusts tore at the roof of the New Orleans
Superdome, peeling away long, narrow strips that sailed out of sight in a
loopy trajectory in the wind and rain. Inside, thousands of people were
camped on the playing field, the tiers of seats, and in the raw cement
corridors. Rain poured in. People were soaked and shivering. But the worst
was yet to come.
Hurricane Katrina had roughed up the outskirts of Miami and now it was
hammering New Orleans—wrecking the city and setting the stage for
massive flooding. Before the storm and the flooding were over, more than
1,800 people would be dead. New Orleans, a huge swath of southern
Louisiana, and the entire Mississippi coast would be in ruins. The damage
would run to perhaps $135 billion, and Katrina would be remembered as one
of the deadliest and costliest hurricanes in history.
From my lookout in the garage at New Orleans City Hall, I watched as a
dangling traffic light shot across an intersection like a bullet pass, then
swung back on its tether. Nearby, windows shattered and glass sprayed
down on the sidewalk like lethal snow. It was 7:00 a.m. on August 29, 2005,
and the wind was clocking more than one hundred miles an hour, chewing at
office buildings, homes, the Superdome—everything in the city.
As I peered out through the gaps in a latticed brick wall, a big sheet of
twisted tin came skidding and tumbling at me, then spun away like an out-of-
control toboggan. Somewhere, there was the crash of glass—more windows
were breaking. The metal garage door clanged against wrought-iron gates. It
buckled like a prizefighter taking a punch to the midsection, shuddered, then
straightened out, only to be banged and buckled again.
Outside, cars lined the sidewalks, parked nose to tail as they would have
been on any ordinary day in the center of one of America's great cities, a city
of jazz and Creole culture and old-fashioned houses with gingerbread and
But on this day, New Orleans was not itself. The city and its people—at least
those who had not fled—were tucked in, off the streets. The music had
stopped. Clubs and restaurants were closed. Even the police were hunkered
down. Water was rising in the downtown streets. Soon it would cover the
tires of the parked cars; in some places, it would rise above their hoods. The
wind and the rain owned the city. The storm had taken over.
That is what hurricanes do. They stop the world—your world, when they
choose to come your way. They are among the most powerful, most
mysterious forces on earth, and they have been terrorizing people along the
shores of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico for
The Mayan Indians in Central America, whose civilization faded long before
the first Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century, provided the word
Hurakan—probably the earliest version of the name we use today for these
monstrous storms. Hurakan was the Mayan god of the big wind, and his
image was chiseled into the walls of Mayan temples. In the Caribbean, the
Taino, Carib, and Arawak Indians cowered before an evil god they called
Hurican. Early explorers in the new world picked up the native names. In
Spanish, the word became huracan. In English it was hurricane.
Christopher Columbus got tangled up in hurricanes in the Caribbean in 1493
and 1494 and, according to his journal, was determined not to run into one
again. "Nothing but the service of God and the extension of the monarchy
would induce me to expose myself to such dangers," he wrote.
The ancients personalized the hurricane, believing that it was bearing down
on them as punishment for something they had done—or not done. These
days, there is more science and less superstition. Yet we humanize
hurricanes with familiar names, and the big ones become folkloric characters,
their rampages woven into the histories of American towns and cities.
We may tell ourselves that hurricanes most certainly do not have minds of
their own. But sometimes I've seriously wondered as I've driven through
shattered neighborhoods and seen the way the wind has danced and teased
I grew up in south Florida and I've been through more than a dozen
hurricanes. I survived the first when I was six years old. My mother and my
younger brother and I had taken shelter with some friends in a dairy barn. It
was built like just about every other big building in the region, with walls of
stacked cement blocks and a roof of corrugated tin panels. It was warm and
cozy—we had kerosene lanterns for light, and we stretched out on bales of
hay. But the building was not as sturdy as we had thought. As the hurricane
lashed the barn, it began to come apart, cement block by cement block. We
all pushed to the front of the barn, where the walls were holding. We were
Abruptly, the wind fell off, and as the relatively calm eye of the hurricane
passed over us, the grownups moved us all to a wooden farmhouse. When
the wind came up again, the house creaked and the walls flexed. But the
house stayed up. We all thought it was surprising that the farmhouse held up
better than the barn. But that may have had more to do with the fickle nature
of hurricanes than with the way the buildings had been constructed.
By the time Hurricane Andrew ripped through south Florida in 1992, I was a
newspaper reporter working for The New York Times. I rode out the storm in
Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami. Afterward I steered my car around downed
trees and power lines. Farther south, where Hurricane Andrew had struck
with the greatest force, I drove past block after block of almost identical one-
story ranch-style houses. And I saw what I've seen many times. Some
houses were in ruins, some had lost their roof. But others had barely been
In condo towers, curtains billowed out of shattered windows on one floor, but
just above and just below, there was no sign of damage. Mobile home parks
had become fields of wreckage. But here and there stood an old model with
little damage. Moving across Florida, the wind had nibbled here, passed up a
house or two entirely, then delivered a few knockout punches and moved on.
Our culture is filled with references to these monstrous storms—in music,
movies, books, poetry, and paintings. Historians say an Atlantic hurricane
inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest. In the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote
of "the infernal hurricane," and Joseph Conrad wrote about the Pacific version
of hurricanes in his book Typhoon. Artists like Winslow Homer and J.M.W.
Turner have captured the power and mystical qualities of hurricanes in
paintings. A storm even shared some big scenes with Humphrey Bogart and
Edward G. Robinson in the classic movie Key Largo. More recently, Carl
Hiaasen, the author of Hoot and a slew of other Florida novels, used the
chaos of Hurricane Andrew as the setting for a novel called Stormy Weather.
The hurricane season begins each year on June 1 and runs through the end
of November. The life cycle of the hurricane has become a familiar part of the
summer news for Americans: The discovery of a tropical disturbance far off in
the Atlantic or perhaps somewhere in the Caribbean; a week or ten days of
bulletins from the National Hurricane Center; preparations—from stocking up
on flashlight batteries and bottled water to putting up storm shutters;
evacuation, the landing of the storm, palm trees flailing, buildings coming
apart; then the aftermath: going home, picking up the pieces, rebuilding.
For most people who don't live on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast, hurricane
watching is a spectator sport. They know there is little chance they will be
involved. Still, they want to know what the hurricane is doing, whom it is
hurting. It is like gawking at a pileup on the interstate. It raises the specter of
death and the oh-that-could-have-been-me factor. For those in its path, when
a hurricane comes blustering ashore, nothing else matters. And it is never
Yet for all their fury, hurricanes begin life as fragile weather systems far from
the towns and cities where they make their names. The first stirrings often
come in the warm waters off the coast of West Africa.