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A Tale of Two Butterflies

In his book “Isaac’s Storm about the deadly Galveston hurricane of 1900, Erik Larson quotes the author Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. writing about chaos theory and the butterfly effect in the context of the unpredictability of the development of tropical storms.

“Could a butterfly in the West African rainforest, by flitting to the left of a tree rather than to the right, possibly set in motion a chain of events that escalates into a hurricane striking coastal South Carolina a few weeks later?”

It’s an intriguing concept that plays out each summer and fall to varying result. The storms that activate form a conga line of swirling disturbances that roll across the Atlantic toward the western hemisphere. Some evolve into hurricanes while others fizzle and flitter off to sea. Some eventually damage property while others are stone-cold killers.

I stood in the eye of a hurricane once. It wasn’t in the usual hurricane target zones: Florida, the Carolinas, the Caribbean, the Gulf. It was in Rye, New York, on the shore of Long Island Sound. To be precise, I was standing with my father-in-law on the grounds of American Yacht Club, largely entertained by the balmy breeze and the break in the rain. The year was 1985, and the hurricane was Gloria.

As with most Atlantic hurricanes, Gloria was born a humble zephyr off the west coast of Africa before starting its march across the Tropics. After eyeballing the Bahamas and the Caribbean islands, the storm turned north and placed the American Eastern Seaboard on alert from South Carolina to Maine. With sustained winds of 155 miles per hour at its peak, Gloria led millions to evacuate the mid-Atlantic coast, but then the storm weakened. It danced up the shore, leaving its share of downed trees, flooded homes and wrecked boats along the way before crossing Long Island—and me—and heading inland through Hartford, Connecticut, and the moderating effects of dry land and higher latitudes. Fourteen deaths were attributed to Gloria, and nearly a billion dollars in property damage, but compared to some of its infamous cousins, the storm was a relative kitten.

Scroll ahead 34 years to this past September and Hurricane Dorian. It was on a similar track to that of Gloria, but the eye turned north a hundred or so miles west of where the 1985 storm did. Dorian was a raging, crushing Category 5 when its eye slammed into the low-lying Abacos and took a deadly pause over Grand Bahama, flattening nearly everything aboveground and killing or injuring untold numbers of people. Tens of thousands were left homeless. Dorian skirted the U.S. East Coast, but it tracked out to sea before it could do major damage. Here on the mainland, we largely dodged a bullet.

The capriciousness of powerful storms, whether hurricanes or tornadoes, is a great source of wonder and fear. Unlike the crude forecasting technology in place in 1900, today’s tools at least give us a better idea of who gets lucky and whose number may be up. But we still haven’t found a way to divert or derail the most powerful forces of nature.

In the end, it may just depend on which way the butterfly goes.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue.