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Nature's power

Last week, the terrible and wondrous swirl of clouds and winds and water called Hurricane Isabel forced us to behold an acknowledgment of the superiority of nature.

By Michael Hill

Sun Staff

September 21, 2003

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At the beginning of the 1977 miniseries "Roots," the father of Kunta Kinte takes his baby out under the African sky and holds the infant high beneath a stunning canopy of stars. "Behold," he says, "the only thing greater than yourself."

Last week, the terrible and wondrous swirl of clouds and winds and water called Hurricane Isabel forced us to behold the same thing -- an acknowledgment of the superiority of nature.

For almost all of human existence, this was a daily reality. It still is in many cultures. But in the postindustrial developed worlds, nature has become something of a museum display. Those stars that shone with their infinite mystery on the infant Kunta Kinte -- as they did on tens of thousands of years of humanity -- are barely visible in the light-polluted skies of the cities that are home to so many. You want stars? Go to the planetarium.

The food that was the foundation of the struggle for survival - that led through its cultivation to what we call civilization - no longer comes from a battle with the earth, the rain or the animals. It arrives in boxes and cans and plastic wrap. Cold has been taken care of by furnaces; heat by air conditioning. Automobiles and airplanes are victorious in the fight against gravity. Antibiotics and vaccines tame the diseases that only a century ago regularly robbed parents of their young children.

Even the human institutions designed to tap into such feelings seem to have lost the ability to invoke awe. The mystery of the church is a sing-along folk Mass. The robed judges who once dispensed justice from on high are the stuff of prime-time entertainment, whether on the Court TV channel or on Judge Judy.

Then, into this carefully protected world comes something like Isabel. Certainly, its destructive forces can generate fear, but equally, such storms have an undeniable appeal, in large part because they inspire awe, a fundamental human emotion too rarely felt in the midst of modernity.

"There is probably some elemental human fascination with something that's completely overpowering," says Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm. "A volcano, an earthquake, a hurricane, they are all awe-inspiring. I am an atheist, but we witness whatever we perceive to be God, that this is God's handiwork."

Junger says he was inspired to write his book, which tells of an ill-fated fishing vessel on its final voyage in 1991, by watching the products of that amazing storm - an unlikely confluence of meteorological events far out at sea - strike the shore.

"I was living in Gloucester [Mass.] at the time, and it was one of the most powerful experiences I've ever had," he says. "We were watching the community of Gloucester become instantly humbled by these forces beyond its control, 30-, 40-foot waves rolling in and exploding over these luxury homes built along the ocean."

Though the wind was howling and the waves were picking up rocks from the sea bottom and raining them on the shore, Junger says the spectators did not leave.

"People were absolutely riveted," he says. "There was something about this slow, unstoppable power that was really elegant almost, huge, huge swells that moved with a ponderous grace. ... When they broke, the ground literally shook."

Daniel Kirk-Davidoff was a graduate student in meteorology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston when the storm came through. "We drove out to Gloucester in the department van to watch it," says Kirk-Davidoff, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It was just an amazing storm. From a meteorology point of view, it was fabulous."

Kirk-Davidoff says that graduate students often say they were attracted to meteorology by some such encounter.

That was true of Bill Krieger, a professor of earth sciences at York College in York, Pa., who remembers sitting on a rock with his brother near Lancaster in 1972 as the floodwaters from Tropical Storm Agnes flowed beneath them.

"We sat up there in the pouring rain, watching all sorts of things float by, bungalows, boats, in one case even a live deer caught on the debris," Krieger says. "It was interesting to realize the force of that water."

"I tell my students all the time that nature does what it wants to," he says. "There's no way when it comes to weather and other things like that that we can totally control it. I think that power is captivating."

It was not that long ago that such storms appeared with little or no warning. In 1900, a hurricane came ashore and destroyed much of Galveston, Texas. Residents knew there was a storm out in the Gulf of Mexico somewhere, but little else. An estimated 8,000 died.

In 1938, a hurricane that came to be called the Long Island Express took much the same track as Isabel, but stayed a bit farther offshore, not making landfall until it got farther north. Though forecasting was much more advanced, it took Long Island and New England by surprise. About 700 died.

Five years before that, an unnamed storm hit North Carolina's Outer Banks at hurricane strength then, weakened, stalled off Maryland, battering the coastline for a week. When it left, a gash had been cut in the barrier island between Ocean City and Assateague. This opened up the inlet side of the island to development and is credited with making Ocean City into the resort it is today.

Even now, with satellite images showing us minute-by-minute progress, with photographs from space showcasing the storms' fearful symmetry, their continued unpredictability remains part of their appeal.

"In the modern-day world, there are few things that catch us off guard," says Russell Jones, a psychologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg who has studied people's reaction to storms and other natural disasters. "The enormity and unpredictability of hurricanes certainly piques one's interest. It is a challenge to man to face these obstacles and to see what extent they can cope with them."

"These things bring us back to our senses," he says. "Even though they are very occasional, they remind us there are some things out there we really don't have control over."

Junger says one of the appeals of such events is the way they change quotidian reality.

"In New York during the last blizzard, the streets were completely empty," he says. "In floods, you see canoes going down Main Street. Your hometown is turned upside down and that appeals to the curious child in each of us."

"It's irresistible. I think everybody, though certainly they are worried about getting hit by the storm, in my opinion - and I might be a freak - everyone is a little disappointed if the hurricane doesn't hit them," Junger says. "However worried they are about their home, there is some 10-year-old in them that secretly loves to see the storm hit. It's not that you wish for bad things, but it is quite a thing to witness. If it happens, you want to see it happen."

You want to be safe, but you want to feel danger. It's why we get on roller coasters, or jump off bridges while tied to bungee cords or go to scary movies. As movie director Alfred Hitchcock once said, "I think people just like to be scared."

That is in no way to minimize the real damage and genuine dangers associated with these storms. But it is to acknowledge their appeal, that they tap into something deep within us, a place we rarely go without something forcing us there, a place where we behold something greater than ourselves.

Psychologist Jones often deals with people traumatized by storms. He counsels preparation in the time leading up to a storm as a way of easing the tension. But he says he recognizes that sometimes his advice does no good.

"What we tell our clients is to pray," he says. "If you've got a God, pray to it. Some things are just beyond our grasp. No matter what we do to get ready, sometimes it doesn't help."