Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina. By Stuart B. Schwartz. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. xxi, 439. $35.00.)
Author(s)Emanuel, Kerry Andrew
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The phrase “natural catastrophe” is an oxymoron. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and great storms are all part of nature and on geological time scales are as normal as breathing is to us. The catastrophe is that we insist on building and living on earthquake faults, in floodplains, on the flanks of volcanoes, and in places frequently visited by violent storms. That the ancients did so can hardly be held against them, living in ignorance of the causes and history of such events; but that we do so today speaks volumes about the complex relationship between modern man and nature. It is a relationship that continues to exact an enormous toll in human suffering and which molds the political and physical infrastructure of much of the world today. Continued ignorance of the history and nature of this relationship portends and unending string of “natural” catastrophes. Stuart Schwartz’s brilliant and entertaining Sea of Storms casts a welcome light on this fascinating if disturbing blind spot in our relationship to nature, meticulously describing the social effects of hurricanes affecting the greater Caribbean region, from Barbados to the U.S. Gulf and southeast coasts. This is not a blow‐by‐blow account of each and every hurricane known to have affected the region; rather, Schwartz uses individual hurricanes to illustrate the complex interplay between social institutions, notably slavery, political systems such as socialism and capitalism, and natural hazards. Running through this exceptionally well researched book are a number of interesting threads that seem invariant over time. One is the tension between commerce and public safety. As trade expanded across the Caribbean in the 16th Century, Spanish governors concentrated people and wealth in coastal ports to support shipping, thus making island communities increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes. After such ports were smashed, they were simply rebuilt, negating any tendency to adapt to the hazard. Fearing lawsuits from local businesses, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin delayed the evacuation of his city as Hurricane Katrina approached in 2005, a decision that probably cost hundreds of lives. The continued reckless development of coastlines in the face of repeated catastrophes testifies to the triumph of money over safety.
DepartmentMassachusetts Institute of Technology. Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences
Emanuel, Kerry A. “Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina. By Stuart B. Schwartz. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. Xxi, 439. $35.00.).” Historian 79, 1 (March 2017): 145–146 © 2017 Phi Alpha Theta
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