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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

October 16, 1994|DICK RORABACK

THE SCARIEST PLACE ON EARTH: Eye to Eye With Hurricanes by David E. Fisher (Random House: $23; 250 pp.) It is the most destructive force on earth, arguably the most terrifying. In terms of material damage, the 1992 Miami hurricane tops the charts of history. In the human dimension, the Bangladesh typhoon (same phenomenon, different name) crushed to death more than a million people, many of them awe-struck, virtually hypnotized, as they watched "a luminous cloud in the darkness" approach with a roar from hell, "the crest of a wave that towered over them and then came crashing down--and that was the last sight they ever saw." In the 1935 Florida Keys storm, people caught out in the open "were sandblasted, quite literally," their clothes, then their skin flayed off, down to muscle and bone. It packs a wallop of half a million A-bombs, releases enough energy in a day to supply America with electricity for a year.

It's probably more than you wanted to know, but it's compelling reading. David E. Fisher brings to his work a rare mix of science and story: With a doctorate in nuclear physics, he teaches cosmo-chemistry at Miami U. and moonlights as playwright, actor, novelist--and survivor, of the '92 blow. His aim is "to tell you about hurricanes--what they are, how they form, what damage they can do, and how we might modify or avoid them." He succeeds. While probing a big wind's almost unfathomable causes--"A hurricane over the Atlantic can begin with a butterfly's beating wings in Vietnam"--Fisher felicitously blends lore with expertise: Columbus, Mayan human sacrifices to the god Yuracan, Balaclava, Adm. Bull Halsey (who steered the U.S. fleet into a hurricane--twice!), Egyptian high priests and why the sky is blue. Even a word for Californians: "Of course, if you live on the West Coast, you have nothing to worry about. Except earthquakes."

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