HURRICANE JUAN AND OTHER HISTORIC WINDS (October 17/03)

In 1853 an end-of-January gale made the history books when it blew down forty-seven million cubic feet of timber in Scotland.

In 1780 a great wind started somewhere near Barbados, ravaged the island of St. Lucia, killing six thousand persons and destroyed an English fleet anchored nearby. Swirling onwards, the wind dubbed the “great hurricane of 1780” sank more than 40 French military ships carrying four thousand soldiers and killed nine thousand persons in Dominique, St. Eustatius, St. Vincent and Puerto Rico; along the way the hurricane sank countless other ships.

I found these gems of information on hurricanes in a book I happened to be reading a few days before Hurricane Juan savaged Nova Scotia. No mention was made of other damage the gale caused in Scotland but it must have been considerable for the storm to be remembered and recorded. Until modern times the 1870 hurricane was dubbed the most destructive windstorm in recorded history.

Another storm that made the history books occurred in more recent times. In 1926 a hurricane struck Miami and the damage was estimated at a hundred million dollars in then current dollars. A few years later another hurricane struck the same area. The death toll from these storms was in the thousands.

Who among us doesn’t remember Hurricane Hazel in October 1954, with winds of up to 150 miles per hour? The damage by this storm on the coast here and on the U.S. seaboard has been estimated at over 300 million dollars. An even more vicious storm, Hurricane Donna in 1960, caused damage to the tune of more than a billion dollars.

While we tend to think of destructive winds as a modern phenomenon, it isn’t so. Windstorms have been plaguing man for thousands of years. Ancient man looked upon winds with religious awe, named and worshipped wind gods, and in some cases dedicated temples to them. The Greeks decided there were eight winds, the Romans settled on and named 12.

There was good reason for the Greeks to deify the wind. When Xerxes, the King of Persia, led his army against the Greeks in 480, he was certain of victory. When the Persian fleet was anchored offshore, the Greeks consulted the oracle at Delphi who advised them to pray to the winds. Promptly an altar was raised and sacrifices to the wind were made. The next morning a violent wind storm struck the Persian fleet and destroyed it, saving Greece.

This was a coincidence perhaps but it reinforced the belief that the wind came from the gods. Other civilisations were just as certain that the winds were of godly origin. Over the ages, even primitive societies worshipped and deified the wind. We speak of Chinook winds, for example, without realising they were named after the Chinook Indians who handed down a legend about powerful winds.

Generations from now people will still be talking about the destruction caused by Juan and rest assured this hurricane will make the history books. But while Juan will join the ranks of other destructive winds, I wonder how it compares to a hurricane that struck Florida in 1900 with winds estimated at 250 miles an hour?

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