SUPERSTORM: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, by Kathryn Miles. Dutton, 368 pp., $27.95.
How do you make sense of a storm like Sandy, a "hurricane that wasn't a hurricane" and was "so immense it caught the attention of scientists on the International Space Station"? Two years on, Kathryn Miles confronts this question in her ambitious new book, "Superstorm."
The story focuses on the eight days leading up to Sandy's destructive arrival in the most populous region of the United States. At the heart of this journey are America's weather forecasters, the meteorologists who struggle to make sense of an unprecedented storm and to warn the public in time. Separate story lines follow the crew of the sailing ship "Bounty" and a family on a Disney cruise, as well as the pilots of the 53rd Weather Reconnaissance Squadron as they fly into hurricanes to gather data.
Miles is a gifted writer who can find drama in the issuance of a storm briefing, which one meteorologist likens to "sounding the alarm to a potential five-alarm fire." She skillfully weaves in the troubled history of weather forecasting and tales of sailors surviving storms, going back to Aristotle and Christopher Columbus. What becomes clear is that precedents meant little with a storm the likes of which "the world has simply never witnessed." What was supposed to be the more "manageable" side of a hurricane for ships, according to nautical books, had with Sandy become the dangerous side, with fatal consequences.
The course of a hurricane is difficult to nail down; "many experts say there is only a one in five chance that a hurricane will land within the predicted warning area," writes Miles. This natural uncertainty only sowed doubt in a public already skeptical from warnings the year before about Irene, a hurricane-turned-tropical storm that had driven people from their homes but proved less deadly. Sandy was more unpredictable, and morphing from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm wouldn't lessen its impact.
The book begins and ends at landfall, a tragic frame that reminds us of "just how vulnerable we are" to storms. The National Weather Service did make changes to its warning system after Sandy, and unveiled a storm surge map to show potential flooding zones, but issues with funding and decaying equipment remain.
If the cast is too large and the historical exposition bogs down the narrative at times, Miles can be forgiven. Sandy was no ordinary storm: "There was no precedent, no authoritative model or soothing data to help make sense of what was happening." But Miles' "Superstorm" comes pretty close.