“Wind is invisible,” author Lyall Watson once wrote, “which immediately puts it into a category of things like love, hate and politics that we find difficult to explain and impossible to ignore.”
Watson’s pairing of weather and politics resonates in Louisiana, where the occasional hurricane — and the subsequent haggling among politicians about storm recovery — remind us that any time there’s an ill wind, raucous debate can’t be far behind.
Watson, a native of South Africa who died in 2008, did a number of things through a long and colorful career, including work making nature documentaries and a stint as a sumo wrestling commentator on British television. But Watson’s chief legacy might very well be “Heaven’s Breath,” his 1984 book that offered general readers a natural history of wind. It’s back in print now in a new edition, and as one might expect, Louisiana’s hurricanes figure into the story.
Watson mentions Camille, which visited Louisiana in 1969, and Betsy, the 1965 storm that also afflicted the state, ranking for a time as the greatest U.S. natural disaster ever. “But her ravages,” Watson says of Betsy, “pale into insignificance compared with an anonymous cyclone of only moderate strength that hit the coast of Bangladesh in 1970, killing an estimated 300,000 people. The difference lies in the effects, not of direct wind, but of the storm surge those winds can produce.”
The issue of storm surge has even greater importance in Louisiana since Watson made his observation, as coastal land loss makes the state more vulnerable to wind-driven waters during major storms.
Regardless of their related effects, the basic power of hurricanes is awesome, Watson reminds readers. “An ordinary summer afternoon thunderstorm has the energy equivalent of thirteen Nagasaki-type atomic bombs,” he notes. “Most hurricanes have at least 25,000 times that potential for destruction.”
But wind can do good things, too, Watson is quick to point out. “Ordinary everyday winds put a large number of plants, at all stages of their life cycles, to flight. Collections taken from the summer air over Louisiana found the seeds of four species of daisy or thistle, five different grasses and a cottonwood, all lurking at a height of 1,500 meters, just waiting to descend on some new and likely habitat.”
Here in August, of course, a nice breeze is especially welcome. Here’s hoping that the rest of this year’s hurricane season brings us nothing more eventful.