Roar of the Heavens

Roar of the Heavens

by Stefan Bechtel



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806528335
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 06/01/2007
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.02(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.88(d)

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Copyright © 2006 Stefan Bechtel
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8065-2706-4

Chapter One

5:30 A.M., Thursday, August 14, 1969 New Orleans

A scatter of stars still glittered through the moss-draped live oak trees along Saint Charles Avenue when Nash C. Roberts Jr. slipped out from between the sheets and slid his feet stealthily onto the bedroom floor. He was doing his best not to wake Lydia, his dear wife of twenty-nine years, who slept lightly as a cat. As for himself, he'd been wide awake and on edge for hours. He could never sleep when bad weather was brewing. As a professional courtesy to his clients, he probably shouldn't be able to sleep: He was a meteorologist providing site-specific weather reports to oil and gas companies with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in offshore drilling operations in the coastal marshes and the Gulf of Mexico. It was his job to be nervous-especially now, smack in the middle of hurricane season, when something fearful was afoot in the atmosphere.

He reset the alarm for 6:45 A.M., for Lydia and the boys, dressed quickly in a light cotton suit and tie appropriate for the sticky August heat of New Orleans, tiptoed downstairs and made himself a cup of coffee, and was out the door before six. It was only a twenty-minute drive from his modest brick home in Metarie to his office on Camp Street,just a couple of blocks outside the French Quarter.

The headquarters of Nash C. Roberts, Meteorological Consultants, in the downstairs lobby of the St. Charles Hotel, were as comfortable and unpretentious as an old shoe. There were butt-worn leather swivel chairs and metal filing cabinets and a couple of sad, neglected potted plants in the corner. Several inelegant teletype machines clattered out, in code, the weather conditions throughout North and South America. A gently murmuring voice box reported activities on the world's commodity exchanges, many of which were weather-dependent businesses in need of meteorological advice. Drafting tables were strewn with synoptic weather maps and radar images, along with the compasses and protractors that Roberts's staff of five meteorologists used to draw, freehand, vast and detailed weather maps each day. Even in 1969, these were old-fashioned methods, but Nash Roberts was famous for his old-fashioned devotion to detail.

Nobody was in the office yet. Roberts flipped on the lights, hung his jacket up on the back of a chair, loosened his tie, and sat down to figure out what in the world was going on. For the past three days, he had had his eye on an infant storm system that was thrashing its way up the Caribbean through the Yucatan Channel, a path so favored by incoming storms it was almost like a hurricane highway. He'd started watching this thing back on Monday, August 11, as it passed over the island of Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles. The storm was now located about sixty miles west of Grand Cayman Island, a little less than five hundred miles south of Miami.

It was still fairly early in the hurricane season-as a general thing, the Caribbean basin didn't turn into a boiling cauldron of storm systems until the middle of September. Even so, the sea-surface temperature down there was eighty degrees or perhaps even warmer. Since sea-surface temperature was what stoked the engines of a hurricane, anything could happen, and happen quickly. It was as if, as the hurricane season progressed, the entire Caribbean Sea caught fire, with great flickering plumes of heat energy rising up into the atmosphere, seeking just the right conditions to tip over into that infernal rotation, creating a swirling chimney of air eight or ten miles high, or even higher. Once that happened, the towering vortex would begin hungrily vacuuming warm, soggy air upwards, feeding upon the heat-energy like a voracious animal, whirling faster and faster, higher and higher-a deadly, self-reinforcing spiral, expelling its exhaust up to the edge of the tropopause and unleashing forces that were practically unimaginable.

When that happened, everything came down to the elementals: shrieking wind, towering water, abject fear, and death.

Most of these systems were spawned on or near the coast of Africa, many on the Abyssinian Plateau of Ethiopia, where they'd begin life as bush-league atmospheric disturbances called tropical waves. This one was no exception, having been born in the African highlands where man himself was born, and drifted in a lazy parabola down across the South Atlantic. Carried by the prevailing easterlies around the great high-pressure system known to meteorologists as the Bermuda High-a kind of mountain of air that was a more-or-less permanent fixture of the atmosphere there-the system had moved into the steamy blue of the Caribbean Sea.

Last year, 1968, had been a particularly busy one: more than a hundred tropical waves had been detected and tracked across the South Atlantic into the Caribbean. Most of them would build up, rise, condense as rain, and expend their energies over the tropical sea, harmless as a dispersing cloud of butterflies; others would storm ashore with towering, torrential rains, causing massive flooding and mudslides in Caribbean countries. But for reasons that were still not entirely clear to anyone, a very few of these budding storm systems-in '68, there were only three-would begin to revolve into a "closed system," tighten down into a menacing vortex, and begin hurtling towards the Gulf coast like a death star. Once their winds accelerated to 74 miles an hour, they officially became hurricanes, and everyone and everything in their path was in peril.

For Nash Roberts this is when sleep would not come, and he'd simply move out of Lydia's bed and into his office on Camp Street. He'd work around the clock for days on end, snatching catnaps on an old sofa, never really taking his attention off the incoming storm. It was, he liked to tell people, part of his technique: He'd become so deeply and completely engrossed in the study of the storm that it was almost as if he were having a love affair with it. "It's like being married," he'd tell people. "Your wife or your husband can detect a change before anyone else can. I have to have that kind of relationship with a hurricane."

The critical thing everybody wanted to know about an incoming hurricane was where and when it would make landfall. And though he didn't like to admit this publicly-it sounded a little silly, really-Roberts had learned to understand and predict the storm track of hurricanes partly by thinking of them as humans. He "psyched them out"-got inside their skins. "Hurricanes are like people," he liked to say. "They're always trying to find the easy way to go." Like a spinning top, a hurricane would continue to move forward unless something blocked its progress. If it ran into a high-pressure area (really just a mountain of air, like the Bermuda High), it would find an easier way around. If it came upon a low-pressure trough (a kind of ditch in the air), the spinning top of the hurricane would slip into the ditch and follow it as far it could go, like a gutterball. The key thing was to figure out what was steering it, and to assume it would always choose the easier way if it could find one.

Like every other meterologist, Roberts diligently analyzed data: he studied the vortex reports, the ocean currents, the high-altitude winds, and all the rest of it. But "all that data that comes in only tells you what has happened. It doesn't tell you what's going to happen." How you used the information every other weatherman had in order to prophesy the future involved experience, intuition, and a deep personal relationship with the wind.

It was still too early for Roberts to have any real relationship, any real feel, for the as-yet-unnamed storm system churning up past the Caymans. So far, it was just a collection of muddy smudges on the radar reports, which had first been detected by satellite back on August 5, off the west coast of Africa-part of the season's steady parade of tropical waves marching west over the rim of the world. A Navy reconnaissance plane had flown into the center of the system and recorded a barometric pressure measurement of 29.50", and 55-mile-an-hour winds-a middling storm, frightful to be caught in at sea, but still far short of a hurricane. Officially, it was now a tropical storm (meaning that it had organized circulation and maximum sustained winds of over 39 miles an hour).

The system was still fairly small, but Roberts knew well enough how rapidly things could go from worrisome to dead scary out there in the Gulf. He also knew from more than thirty years of studying these great ocean storms that hurricanes differ dramatically. It really did make sense to give them names, because each seemed to have its own personality. Some were big and sloppy and lumbering; they were like old people, slow-moving, fat, and predictable. They'd overwhelm the entire Gulf, like 1961's Carla. Others were quick and nimble and erratic, like children (and dangerous in a child's unwitting way). Some storms would move right up to the Coast and then just stop there, as if they knew they'd die if they came ashore. It was eerie and probably entirely unscientific, but Roberts took it seriously: Some hurricanes even seemed to have an intelligence, a deliberateness, a will.

Though it was too early to say whether this infant storm would develop a will of its own, it was not too early to begin paying very close attention indeed. Because a full-blown hurricane is the most destructive force on earth, killing more people and causing more damage than floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, or anything else in nature's arsenal. According to the World Meteorological Organization, during the twentieth century hurricanes caused ten times as many deaths in the United States, and more than three times as much damage, as earthquakes.

Nash Roberts's knowledge of hurricanes and their dreadful power was something he could feel. And poring over the incoming data, he could feel it now, a combination of vast knowledge and experience shot through with plain old clammy human fear. Maybe wind shear in the upper atmosphere would break up the baby storm system and it would just go away, like most storms did. Or maybe atmospheric conditions would align like fateful stars, and something truly awful would come roaring in off the Gulf. It was too early to tell. It wasn't only the well-being of Shell, Mobil Oil, and his other offshore clients that he was concerned about. He was worried about the well-being of his own wife and family-which in a strange sort of way included the millions of people living along the Gulf coast from east Texas all the way to Pensacola, Florida.

Whenever a big hurricane began bearing down on this region and that clammy fear returned to his gut, Roberts became a man transformed. Not only was he a studious professional meteorologist and consultant to drilling companies, bent over his weather maps at the office on Camp Street, he also became a star, his voice and image broadcast up and down the coast on New Orleans's Channel 6, WDSU-TV. Roberts's eerily prescient ability to predict the path of incoming hurricanes, combined with a calm and amiable on-air personality, had made him the most trusted weather forecaster on the Gulf. He was the Walter Cronkite of hurricanes. If Walter Cronkite said something was so, by God, it was so. And if Nash Roberts said a hurricane was coming this way, then by God, it was coming this way.

Roberts's on-air career had started as a bit of a fluke, back in the late 1940s, when Channel 6 asked him to go on the air to explain an incoming hurricane to the station's listeners. He dragged his maps and charts into the studio and gave a simple, folksy chalk talk, using a grease pencil and a big washable plastic weather board. He just wanted to tell the people, as simply and directly as possible, exactly what he knew, precisely how bad he thought it was going to be, where and when he thought the thing was going to come ashore, and-most important-whether people should stay or leave. "There's no reason to hype up a hurricane," he explained later. "There's already built-in hype."

Listeners loved his calm, gentlemanly manner, his patient explanations, his air of courtly authority. They loved his enthusiasm, too: To him, there was nothing more interesting, more challenging, or more consequential than the complex, ever-changing atmospheric chess game called "the weather." At fifty-one, he had a broad, open face; sensuous, expressive lips; and a receding hairline. Somehow, he managed to convey the impression of being a country boy who'd come to the city without becoming citified or fancied up (even though he had been born and raised in New Orleans). He was credible, believable, a straight shooter-a genuine expert in a world of television weather "personalities" who had good hair and no real training at all.

After that first broadcast, a local company, Higgins Industries, started trying to get Roberts to do a regular local weather report-at the time, a genuine novelty, because only big markets like New York or Los Angeles had local weathermen. For two years, he resisted, telling Higgins that he had no training in television whatsoever, and no particular interest in it either. Even so, when he finally agreed to do a seven-and-a-half-minute weather segment on the six- and ten-o'clock news starting in 1951, he turned out to be a natural in the new medium. His on-air personality was entirely without artifice or pretension. The only props he used were his signature grease pencils and his plastic weatherboard, explaining the weather with circles and arrows like an enthusiastic high school football coach explaining a favorite play. Even later, when fancy technologies like Doppler radar became available, Roberts stuck with his humble, low-tech props. People loved this.

And they loved the fact that he treated them with respect-so much respect, in fact, that he constantly enlisted their help. As a hurricane bore down on the Coast, he asked his listeners to keep track of barometric pressure, rainfall, windspeed, and other meteorological markers at their locations. These requests were not merely ruses to get ratings; they weren't secretly shredded the moment they arrived at the television station. Roberts really wanted to know. After the storm had passed, his mailbox at Channel 6 would fill up with letters from dentists in Pascagoula and old ladies in Hattiesburg, with long lists of barometric pressure readings and windspeeds and rainfall records, along with the times and locations where they were taken. One could imagine people leaning earnestly into this task, jotting down lengthy columns of figures in narrow, studious script, sometimes by flickering candlelight, as the wind screamed in the eaves, the surging sea drew closer to the door, and they wondered desperately whether it was already too late to flee.

In effect, Roberts was conscripting his entire listening audience into a meteorological observation team. They were all in the same boat, and he was just asking for their help with the bailing.

Nash Roberts's first big breakthrough came in 1957, when he correctly forecast that Hurricane Audrey, a Category Four, would hit southwest Louisiana. Audrey was a horror, with 12-foot tides and gusts up to 180 miles an hour. While most forecasters believed she would make landfall around 10:00 A.M., Roberts insisted to his listeners that the storm would come ashore six or seven hours earlier, in Cameron, Louisiana. He was right-and more than four hundred people, many of them asleep in bed, were killed that night.

"They should never have fallen asleep with that thing bearing down on them," he said afterwards.

After that prophetic call, when a hurricane began threatening the Gulf Coast, people asked, "What does Nash say?" and tuned in to Channel 6. His neighbors started watching his driveway to see if his car was there at night. No car meant he had started sleeping at his office down on Camp Street-and that meant trouble.


Excerpted from ROAR OF THE HEAVENS by STEFAN BECHTEL Copyright © 2006 by Stefan Bechtel. Excerpted by permission.
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