History of Cultural Responses to Disastrous Storms (1612-2012)

Jennifer Hamilton reviews English and European responses to big storms over time and suggests that even today we need "the more metaphysical dimensions of our existence – the cultural, social and political – to even begin to understand how thunder, lightning, strong winds and an abundance of water falling from the sky can still completely destroy a city and change the course of history."

Disastrous storms caused death, chaos and destruction in the sixteen hundreds as they do now. Back then Englishmen and Europeans published broadsheets, books and pamphlets and painted images to represent and reflect upon the destruction. These works often tried to grasp at the divine reasoning behind the storm, and were usually, but not exclusively, religious in nature. In 2012, we use a set of technologies, from thermometers to supercomputers, to measure and predict the weather. We also use a variety of media, from newspapers to Twitter, to try to comprehend the effects of disastrous storms. Although today we think of the weather itself in scientific and largely materialist terms, cultural responses to terrible disasters still turn to the metaphysical dimensions of human existence in order to explain the event. This article offers a brief overview of responses to storms between 1612 and 2012 in order to illustrate how, despite the massive changes that have occurred technologically and ideologically between then and now, there is something timeless about our desire to understand a stormy catastrophe beyond its brute materiality.

The English winter of 1612-1613 was especially stormy and destructive. There are three surviving pamphlets responding the extreme weather, wherein the pamphleteers aimed to explain God's reasons for damage and destruction caused by the weather. Take, for example, The Last terrible Tempestious windes and weather.(1) A crude line drawing on the cover depicts the River Thames and surrounds after wild weather: windmills have blown away, men are drowning, boats are sinking, steeples have fallen down and women and children are buried in the riverbank. It is a drawing of a disaster zone where the social order has been completely destroyed by a meteorological event.

The pamphleteer insists that he is 'truly relating’ the events, which implies an objective description of what happened. But there is nothing scientific about his explanation. In fact, the author’s main goal is to explain the disaster as part of God’s plan and to promote his cause by encouraging repentance:
"For as God is infinite in his mercie, So is hee infinite in his Justice; and as our transgressions are numberless, so are the severall rods and punishments uncountable that God uses to inflict upon us, sometimes by weake meanse to accompalish great things, and confound the mighty; and sometimes by elementall causes, as fire, aire, water, and earth, hee shewes his universal power."(2)
According to this pamphleteer, the remedy for God’s display of total power was complete repentance in order to encourage Him to show mercy in future: "Then let us consider with our selves in What dangerous estates wee are in When the Almighty is offended with us, and let us turn to the Lord though harty repentance ... and then no doubt but God in his mercy will turne his favourable countenance towards us." (3) This response is what we might expect of someone from England in the early seventeenth century: a terrified religious person responds in a superstitious and zealous way to a disaster.

Less than one hundred years later, in late November 1703, a violent storm swept across England. Hundreds of people died. The fact the storm is remembered at all is largely due to the work of the novelist Daniel Defoe. He edited a collection of responses to the storm so that the catastrophe would not be forgotten.(4) What is interesting about the book is the variety of perspectives Defoe uncovered on the meaning and purpose of the storm. Indeed, he prefaced the collection with a lengthy summary of the different ways of understanding storms over history, from Classical scholars such as Aristotle and Seneca to early modern philosophers like Hobbes and Descartes. He concluded:
"The deepest search into the region of cause and consequence, has found out just enough to leave the wisest philosopher in the dark, to bewilder his head and drown his understanding. You raise a storm in nature by the very inquiry."(5)
Defoe argued that the struggle to explain the storm was as messy and complicated in the pre-Christian Classical period, as it was in his own day at the dawn of the Age of Reason. Beyond Defoe’s own analysis, it is worth noting that although the 1613 pamphlet example was selected to illustrate an extreme religious perspective on the meaning of the stormy winter, a similar pluralism existed in 1613 as it did in 1703.(6) In fact, there is very little to differentiate the perspectives on storms between 1613 and 1703, with the exception of the fact that by 1703 a new professional class of scientists had emerged to attempt to account for the storm.

The empirical science of meteorology was established in the late seventeenth century with the purpose of eliminating the doubt and superstition that had always accompanied the cultural responses to disastrous storms.(7) Indeed, Defoe included new scientific knowledge alongside religious interpretations of the causes of the storm as one of many failed attempts to properly account for the event.(8) In many ways, even if meteorology is far more complex and accurate today than it was in 1703, the failure of both scientific and cultural accounts remains. To be sure, the dominant way of understanding storms is now material (wind speed, temperature, precipitation and air pressure), but religious zealots still emerge after storms to condemn the wicked and encourage the faithful. For example, in the United States TV Evangelical Pat Robinson claimed that the reason Hurricane Gloria (1985) did not harm his town was because he was part of a group praying for it to pass(9) and that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina has repeatedly been attributed to the indulgent behaviour of ‘heathens’ in the French Quarter of New Orleans. But neither the meteorologist, nor the modern zealot fully comprehends the disaster. Although Robinson’s ideas are products of false consciousness and do not correspond with the material reality of the storm itself, in many ways they offer a more meaningful explanation of a storm than the raw data supplied by meteorologists.

However, even today, one need not be a religious evangelical to go beyond the material explanation of storms in order to grasp at broader social, political and ideological significance of a disaster. In fact, this speculation is necessary and encouraged. For example, in April 2012, the United Nations released a 594-page manual entitled Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation. The document outlines how nation-states should organise themselves in order to mitigate the effects of what they call ‘hazardous physical events’ such as hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes and floods (10): such events, they argue, will become more severe as the planet warms(11). They define ‘disasters’ as:
"severe alterations in the normal functioning of a community or society due to hazardous physical events interacting with vulnerable social conditions, leading to widespread adverse human, material, economic, or environmental effects that require immediate emergency response to satisfy critical human needs and that may require external support for recovery." (12)
A disaster is not just a violent storm or terrible flood, but rather is the interaction between the natural event and the socio-political landscape it destroys. Despite our capacity to measure the material force of a storm, when disaster strikes, we need to understand the tragic cultural effects as well. The very nature of our cultural enquiry into a disastrous storm is a form of metaphysical speculation that goes beyond the materiality of the storm itself into the more intangible regions of modern life.

From this point of view, quite standard western secular responses to storms necessarily take on a metaphysical and quasi-religious quality in order to account for the disaster. Take, for example, two of the most memorable storms in recent history, Cyclone Tracy and Hurricane Katrina. Tracy struck Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974; seventy people died and more than half the city was destroyed. When it came to trying to measure the storm, meteorologists found that the wind gauge recorded a maximum gust of 217 km/ph, before it broke. Residents awoke on Christmas Day to find the town had been wiped out. Tracy is an iconic Australian historical event, less for the storm itself and more for its effects: that the storm happened at Christmas and that Darwin was so isolated that no one outside the city was aware of what had happened for several days. The scientific data is incomplete and attempts to reflect upon what happened in Darwin focus on how the cyclone ruined Christmas for the residents of the city rather than on the data anyway.

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans in late August 2005 the cultural dimensions were also the focus. New Orleans is a city built below sea level upon the Mississippi delta. The water is usually held back by a series of levees, but the amount of water dumped out of the hurricane was such that the levees broke and flooded large parts of the city. More than 1800 people died and thousands more were injured or displaced. The reasons why our responses to this storm turns to the metaphysical is due to the failure of the government to help the stranded citizens. The pitiless destruction of Katrina is not just the mindless movements of the natural world, but rather a synecdoche for the government’s thorough neglect of the poor, African American residents of the devastated city.

We tend to think of the tone of the 1613 pamphleteer as particular to a bygone era, because we like to think we have the weather under control and explained in pragmatic and measurable terms: the weather is understood as high and low pressure systems, precipitation, cloud cover, wind speed and temperature. As such, these older modes of interpreting storms appear superstitious to our enlightened modern selves. But extreme weather events cannot be fully explained by science. Thus, today as in 1613, we need the more metaphysical dimensions of our existence - the cultural, social and political – to even begin to understand how thunder, lightning, strong winds and an abundance of water falling from the sky can still completely destroy a city and change the course of history.

1 Anonymous, ‘The last terrible Tempestious windes and weather Truly Relating many Lamentable Ship-wracks, with drowning of many people, on the Coasts of England, Scotland, France and Ireland: with the Iles of Wight, Garfey & Iarfey. Shewing also, many great mis-fortunes, that have lately hapned on Land, by reason of the windes and rayne, in divers places of this Kingdome’, E. Alde and John Beale London, 1613. Early English Books Online, accessed August 12, 2011.
2. Ibid pA2.
3. Ibid pD.
4. The storm was so severe it was referred to as the most violent storm in British history as late as 1987. See Jan Golinski, British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2007 p44.
5. Daniel Defoe, ‘The Storm: or, a Collection Of the most Remarkable Causalities and Disasters Which happen’d in the Late Dreadful Tempest, Both By Sea and Land’ in Defoe’s Works, Vol. 5: The Novels and Miscellaneous Works of Daniel De Foe, George Bell & Sons, London 1881 p 260.
6. See Craig Martin, Renaissance Meteorology: From Pomponazzi to Descartes, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 2011.
7. See Robert Hooke ‘A METHOD for making a History of the WEATHER’ in Thomas Spratt (ed) The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge, Washington University Press, St Louis (1667) 1959 pp173-179.
8. Defoe, p273.
9. For a report on this see ‘Pat Robertson Says Storm Put Him on Path to ’88 Bid: Prayer Diverted Hurricane, Robertson Asserted on TV’, LA Times, retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1986-09-17/news/mn-10637_1_pat-robertson September 14, 2012.
10. V. Barros, C. Field, D. Qin and T. Stocker (eds), Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation, retrieved from http://ipcc-wg2.gov/SREX/, April 2, 2012 p31.
11. Ibid
12. Ibid


Jennifer Hamilton just completed a PhD on the storm in Shakespeare’s King Lear at UNSW. She is a co-director of Sydney-based curatorial collective Serial Space and recently edited Time Capsule, the catalogue accompanying Serial Space’s Time Machine festival. She teaches literature and environmental studies at UNSW and UOW and has published in Southerly, Australian Humanities Review, New Matilda and Das Superpaper.

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