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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : A Close-Up View of Another Kind of Natural Destruction : THE SCARIEST PLACE ON EARTH: Eye to Eye with Hurricanes by David E. Fisher ; Random House : $23, 250 pages

October 12, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here in California, we worry about earthquakes, brush fires and floods, but David E. Fisher's "The Scariest Place on Earth" is about a natural disaster of an entirely different magnitude.

"Let me tell you," he writes, "about hurricanes."

A hurricane killed more than half a million people in the Bay of Bengal in 1970--"more than were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden and London combined ," Fisher points out. And a hurricane is a perfectly routine meteorological phenomenon that beggars the destructive power of human technology: "The energy released in just one decent-sized hurricane is as much as that in 500,000 atom bombs."

Lest we take ourselves and our natural perils too seriously, Fisher invites us to spend a few days of terror in South Florida: "The scariest place on earth," he insists, "is directly in the path of an onrushing category 5 hurricane."

That's where Fisher and millions of other Floridians found themselves in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew roared through Miami and then headed toward Louisiana, leaving a path of devastation that has been characterized as twice as destructive as the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

Fisher's book is a dramatic, day-by-day account of Hurricane Andrew, but it's also an opportunity for the author to explore the natural history of hurricanes in rich and fascinating detail. Fisher explains how and why hurricanes happen, how they are tracked and measured, and, intriguingly, what we may be able to do to control or eliminate them--someday.

"The Scariest Place on Earth" harks all the way back to Genghis Khan, whose invasion of Japan in 1274 was foiled by a typhoon--and Fisher pauses to explain that a typhoon is what hurricanes are called when they occur in the Pacific Ocean rather than in the Atlantic Ocean.

Then Fisher zips forward to World War II, when Adm. "Bull" Halsey relied on some misinterpreted weather data in ordering a task force to sail directly into a monster typhoon--an error in judgment that resulted in the loss of three warships and nearly 800 sailors.

Fortuitously, the early efforts to predict weather at sea in World War II--and the availability of war-surplus ships and planes after the war--led to rapid progress in the study of hurricanes, and so did the intelligence-gathering in the upper atmosphere during the era of nuclear testing. Still, as recently as 1956, hurricanes were still described by one scientist as "one of the great mysteries of the sea."

"Today, we know pretty well how a hurricane works," Fisher deadpans. "How to stop it is another matter."

With the assistance of a collection of drawings that may remind you of a high school science textbook, Fisher explains how the Earth's climate is governed by the temperature and movement of both air and water. Some terms that we may know only from literature and poetry--the trade winds, the doldrums, the horse latitudes--are given new meaning in the context of meteorology, and we learn that "between the doldrums and the horse latitudes is where hurricanes form."

Fisher is described by his publisher as a novelist, a playwright, an actor and a scientist who specializes in marine geology, environmental science and something called "cosmochemistry." His background may help to explain his engaging prose style; he is one science writer who invokes the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the Second Law of Thermodynamics with the same ease and grace.

The account of Hurricane Andrew is peppered with bursts of outrage about the terrible but unnecessary destruction that resulted from lack of preparedness. According to Fisher, the strict building codes in South Florida were "practically guaranteed to make buildings hurricane-proof," but the fact that no hurricanes had hit Florida since 1966 resulted in a dangerous complacency.

"I hate to be cynical or mean-spirited," writes the otherwise easygoing Fisher, "but I just could not see all those Florida building contractors obeying the construction code every year and spending money to make buildings safe against a hurricane that hadn't come since God-knew-when."

"The Scariest Place on Earth" will be reassuring to some readers in Southern California--hurricanes, after all, are one natural disaster we don't have to worry about. But Fisher's fulminations about preparedness in general, and disaster-proof building construction in particular, hold a special resonance in a place where apartment buildings and parking structures and freeway overpasses shouldn't have fallen down in an earthquake--but did.

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