Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall in northern New Jersey/Southern New York on October 28/29, 2012, was barely still a hurricane when it hit, with winds of about 80 miles per hour. It had been touted as the “biggest storm ever recorded in the North Atlantic” before it turned westward. In the hysteria of the moment, a condition which is now de rigueur for each and every calamity of the age, nobody questioned how such an assertion could possibly be verified. It was less than a half century ago that we gained the ability, through satellite imagery, to view a whole storm at once. Indeed, the satellites showed Sandy’s clouds covering roughly the whole eastern end of the North Atlantic at one time.
But size does not equate to power. So far as power goes, by whatever measure one chooses–wind speed, millibars of atmospheric pressure–Sandy was rather average. Even in an age with several millions more people living on the Eastern Seaboard, and the ability to account for each and every possible storm casualty, Sandy still did not kill nearly as many as the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, also known as “The Long Island Express”, which killed sixty people in New York state alone, and a total of over 682 throughout the Northeast. The 1938 hurricane hit Long Island as a Category 3 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Sandy was barely a Category 1 storm.
It is the natural tendency of every age to think its circumstances are remarkable, a quirk of human perception which has been particularly pronounced since the dawn of the industrial age augured rapidly accreting technological prowess so that each succeeding age actually was remarkably more adept at exploiting and controlling to human advantage the natural world than was its predecessor. There is a linearity to human technological progress. This is unquestionable. Because of mankind’s ability to communicate through time, preserving lessons already learned so that future generations can build upon them without starting over from scratch (though history shows the lessons are sometimes forgotten–Rome, for instance, had running water in 400 ad, but after it fell, the technology vanished in Europe for about 14 centuries), the tale of human technological progress has been overwhelmingly linear. Every age gets wowed with new technological wizardry, from steam engines to motorcars to telegraphs to telephones to televisions to internet communications.
But nature is not linear and progressive, and particularly not weather and climate. It is a perceptual fallacy borne of linear technological progress that mankind projects linearity onto nature. Every monster storm of today’s experience is not like the latest, greatest iWhatever offering from Apple. Today’s storms sometimes wreak damages and deaths far in excess of those in collective memory, but there is a great deal more wealth and a far greater number of people who might be affected than ever there was in human history. The linearity of technological progress which has allowed vastly greater accumulations of wealth and humans makes the storms, earthquakes and tsunamis that have always afflicted mankind now seem also linear in their destructive capacity. But all that’s really changed is our perception of them. The Indonesian tsunami of a few years back killed roughly a quarter million people, enough to wipe out a fourth of the whole population of the British Isles just two millenia hence. Was it because the tsunami was extraordinarily remarkable that it killed so many? Or, was it because there were a great many more people living within reach of its devastation than ever had before?
Life is more meaningful when we believe the calamities that befall us are the worst of all time. In an age of existential confusion, where most people in the developed world have very little anxiety about how and when they’ll get their next meal, the impulse to believe our calamities are the worst is magnified, even beyond the natural tendency to consider that whatever age in which one lives is the most important age ever. The antidote is studying history. The psychically adult human studies history to gain perspective on his own age. Inevitably in doing so, he realizes things are never quite as bad as they seem, nor as good. He must swim against a tide of hysteria and credulity to achieve some sort of objective understanding, but the effort is invariably worth the reward.
Hurricane Sandy was one of a number of destructive storms to hit the New York/New Jersey area, but wasn’t remarkable, even considering the quite limited amount of history we have for making comparisons.