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“Hurricane Danny” – An “Act of God”?

Thoughts During the Hurricane, July 1997 – Northern Gulf of Mexico

Satellite photo of Hurricane Danny at its peak intensity on July 19, 1997
Satellite photo of Hurricane Danny
at its peak intensity on July 19, 1997

It seems that every part of the world has some sort of natural calamity which challenges the physical and spiritual life of man – reminding him of the reality of life under a roof, “indoors” as it is described in the USA. The insurance companies – which tend to protect property, the human body, sometimes the soul (“stress” and “mental anguish” as legal categories for lawsuits), but not the elusive, immaterial spirit, of man – still sometimes call such events “acts of God”. Or at least they did so until recently, when the common shared world view, that God governed all, had not yet so dissipated.

When God, to use another example, was more present in people’s daily beliefs taking an “oath” in a court of law: “I swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” – was more understandable, and credible, than it has come to be for many today. But as tradition continues in court, so it does with “acts of God” – natural events, once unexpected and unexplainable (like bad miracles). Blizzards, droughts, lightning storms, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, all have their own special character – if not quite the unique individuality which fundamentalist Christians in this part of America (the “Bible Belt”) believe that God inspires directly into each soul immediately at birth.

Earthquakes, which I experienced in California, come with very little warning – though not only animals and insects can sense something strange before they occur. I recall, before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake (7.1 on the Richter scale) in northern California (south of San Francisco) – with its epicenter about 6 miles from my small garage-apartment – having a distinct and unusual feeling in my head 7–10 minutes before this completely unexpected earthquake occurred.

Easy readers of Nostradamus or the Bible (consider also the recent American “Best seller” called The Bible Code), find “predictions” in unexpected events – usually after they have occurred; but earthquakes often forewarn themselves with very little time, and here we touch the question of whether a sparrow can fall without God’s knowledge. In human affairs this is the theological, religious-doctrinal question of “predestination” vs. “free will” – a deep, centuries-old problem which appeared in the newspaper by chance today (another Southern Baptist church having split, again, due to disputes about John Calvin’s claims of human “Predestination”). Goethe, with – as he described it – fifty years of study of church history behind him, said that, for most people, discussing and arguing such ideas is little more than an unconscious “medley” of ideas that people passionately debate with little understanding (including the history of the “medley”.) But Goethe was an aristocrat who recognized few others above him who saw better. One evening, Goethe awoke his valet to inquire whether he had noted the unusual condition of the night. He stated that an earthquake had just occurred, or was about to – somewhere distant. He did not “find” it in Nostradamus, nor in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, nor in the entrails of birds; rather he could read it in the weather. Weimar women thought him excessive and eccentric in this claim; that is, until the news came days later confirming the earthquake in Messina (Italy) the evening he had noted it.

Earthquakes come quickly, some rising up from inside the earth like ominous drumming. Tornadoes run along the ground – fast; if you see (or hear) it coming, you have about 60 seconds to fasten yourself to the ground, or something immovable (which in an earthquake is unreliable, and even dangerous).

But with hurricanes . . . well, you have even sometimes days of warnings. Even before satellites, or those special storm-monitoring aircraft which fly into storms, a hurricane (typhoon) would forewarn itself with bad weather. But, even with satellites, computer models, knowledge of storm anatomy, Doppler radar, etc., it is still impossible to tell when and where a hurricane will go. They are still considered mysterious “acts of God”, even if today the physical, natural causes are much more known and understood as “acts of nature”.

Even Goethe, the aristocrat who like Thomas Jefferson closely observed nature all his life, only was able to discern the “acts of God” from time to time. If Goethe was a special summit of humanity, we should not expect lesser spirits to do much better often – even if they employ the most up-to-date meteorological technologies. Goethe seems to have had his own special way of discerning nature; in our time, we turn less to Olympian aristocrats like him, or aboriginal shamans, than we do to scientifically-trained weathermen, with their array of forecasting devices (satellites, radar, barometers, computers, etc.) to discern the mysterious “acts of God”. A storm like a hurricane was once considered in toto to be an “act of God”; now its causes are widely believed to be physical and natural, and mostly only its impact on man (a death, a house destroyed, a boat sunk, etc.) are often still given “meaning” – are thus “acts of God”. For many people – who must understand the “act of nature” – must give it meaning; in extreme conditions an “act of nature” is understood as a meaningful and understandable “act of God” (perhaps punishment, purgation or warning for transgressions, sins, etc.) which is found in the calamity.

Whether “acts of God” can be discerned or understood – before, during or after the facts – by lesser spirits than Goethe’s (on his “summit”) or by scientists, is a question little clearly engaged in our time. Here, as much elsewhere, science has replaced divine theology as an explanation of “acts of God”. But if someone dies in a hurricane, or there is great damage, mere “acts of nature” become “acts of God”, and even simple Bible believers often believe themselves able to interpret and understand the high acts and intentions of God in it (democracy of theology and in the discernment of “Providence” one – another strong wind gust happened just now – might call it).

Certainly roaring of the wind, pouring of the rain, dark, deep-grey clouds of the hurricane (this is a mere “Category 1” – at least 74 mph/33 m/s) compel attention. And the higher the level of hurricane – the more damage, the more destruction, death, etc. – the more requirement of meaning, so the stronger the storm, the more the storm becomes an “act of God” to those who experience it. A “Category 5” hurricane (winds that exceed 155 mph/69 m/s) can frighten, awe, make one feel insignificant beneath the “forces of nature” – but this one, “Hurricane Danny” (a non-sexist name, which also tends to “humanize” the unpredictable storm in nature), is not so great as to prevent even reflection on it while it is in progress!

Afterthoughts

As “Hurricane Danny”, though unusually early in the 1997 American hurricane season, was a mere “Category 1 storm”, its damage, destruction and death were small – though it disrupted the lives of millions in its potential path for days. Weathermen today – who on normal American TV news evenings are often expected to act a bit foolish, to provide some humor to the local newscasts – even with all of their technology, weather satellites, predictions, computer models, etc., etc., were unable to reliably predict where “Hurricane Danny” would go even from hour to hour. They really were only able to report its actual movements, which is rather more merely observations; their predictions were little more than scientifically-educated guesses.

The electricity goes out soon, from the high winds ahead of the storm blowing down the wires; the telephone system’s wires had been placed underground in many places, for the telephone company had learned – even during the years of my lifetime – the repair-expense lessons of earlier storms. So that it was possible – in darkness only alleviated by candles, flashlights, or kerosene lamps – to talk by phone with friends in other parts of the US and the world, who, themselves having electricity, were able to comfortably watch TV news reports and pictures from areas inside of the storm, which many people inside of the storm area could not see at all!

Most of the area’s radio stations are without power – but the Emergency Broadcast System Action Plan is put into effect (often just before or after the storm hits), and one radio station, which has a special electrical generator, broadcasts news and information 24 hours per day in the affected areas – the radio becomes the center of life in the darkened homes. There are even commercials on the radio from time to time during the storm. No TV, no, or little light for reading, no running water; just sitting, waiting, listening, anticipating, sometimes fearing . . . . Hour after hour of radio reports on the latest weather update and events concerning the storm – the wind outside can be really howling, gusts can audibly shake the windows of a house, big limbs of the trees around private houses bending disturbingly far. Even a “Category 2 Storm” – or greater – could have required boarding up all the windows of a house, and many other precautions and worries which this mere “Category 1 Storm” did not elicit.

Some of those who have experienced many hurricane seasons – often react rather casually to a coming storm, especially in the eyes of those who have not yet had the experience of a hurricane before. But even the most “experienced” are seldom so bold as to have a “hurricane party”, which seems to be an inevitable part of most hurricanes – younger, usually “party people”, defy the forces of nature (sometimes to disastrous results), by having a good brazen, fearless drinking party during the storm. Such people’s bravado is usually not ensouled by any Macbethian or Promethean defiance of nature or God, but rather by a kind of ageless adolescence. I have seen more than a few of such people on TV – who needed to be rescued when their “hurricane party” became a dangerous and frightening disaster. (Once several people in one of those parties were killed by the effects of the storm on their oceanside hotel room!) Broken windows and flying glass, fierce relentless winds, hurtling debris joining the painful rain flying through the air . . . I recall seeing a woman crying rather hysterically when a “hurricane party” became a horrible experience. She would never do that again she said.

In the more powerful storms, the frightening, powerful winds and rain can be constant. The rain can come in great quantities – even in this mere “Category 1 Storm”, a cooking pot we put outside our home to gather rain water (for drinking and washing), had filled up more than five inches (13 cm) in two hours. At a location not so far from our home, one location recorded 40 inches (about 1 meter) of rain in 24 hour time! Contrary to weather predictions and normal storm behavior, this storm simply stopped over the area, and whirled and rained, and whirled and rained.

The emergency radio station receives live phone calls from people all over the region, reporting conditions in their areas during the storm. Listening closely to the “callers”, one can often hear their social class, education levels, psychological types; those who speak using clichés; others who are highly articulate; those who are nervous; those who are chatterers and gossips; those who think that any inconvenience by the storm is a sort of violation of their “rights” and an direct offense to their person; others who are offering help, encouragement and important information to others. It was amazing to hear how many spoke very poor English – probably “high-school dropouts”. Someone is sure to call in to the radio station and say how great it is that the community are pulling together and helping each other out during the storm. This is usually said with some emotion, and even as if it were some new human discovery, even though it happens every storm. Someone will also be freshly some surprised at the inevitable looters and price-scalpers (those who bring ice, flashlights, generators, lumber, etc., from areas just outside of the storm, and sell it at highly-inflated prices).

During the first days of such a storm, there can be feasts of sorts. With the electricity out, the valuable expensive steaks and other meats, that people store in their home freezers, must somehow be eaten, or they will spoil. So small, portable stoves, outdoor cooking grills, or other fires are made, and people often gain weight eating rather “high off the hog” during the first days without electricity!

In this storm, there was serious damage only to just a few areas in the region. In one farm which I saw (after the storm was over), almost all of the pecan trees in the orchard of a farm were either fallen over, or greatly damaged. It was a real devastation – and for those people the forces of nature had indeed perhaps become “acts of God”. But for most people the storm was merely 3–4 days of real nuisance and inconvenience. Soon their lives – disturbed by mere “acts of nature” – were on their way back to normal!


First published in the magazine English, #5, February 1998, p. 1-14.