History  |  September 18, 2020
By Dr. Deborah Atwood, NMB Curator
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Intense storms and hurricanes have impacted civilizations in the Atlantic World for millennia and are some of the most destructive forces in nature. It is no wonder that many of the ancient civilizations around the Atlantic basin and beyond imagined that storms were divine punishments handed down by the gods. Each culture had its own mythology surrounding the creation of hurricanes and prayed to specific weather gods to gain favour and ensure their protection from a storm’s devastating effects.  

The Taino, Carib and Arawak peoples—the indigenous groups of the Caribbean—believed Juracán, a deity of chaos and disorder was responsible for hurricanes. Juracán, incidentally is believed to be the etymological origin for the word hurricane. 

Mayan god of fire, winds and storms, Huracan. National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Maya mask. Stucco frieze from Placeres, Campeche. Early Classic period (c. 250 – 600 AD)

Half a world away, the Greeks on the other hand, believed hurricanes were the purview of three monstrous gods, Briareus, Cottus and Gyges. Known collectively as the Hecatonchires, these giants had fifty heads and one hundred hands each and represented the gigantic and terrifying forces of nature.

Thanks to the advent of modern science and technology we know the science behind how hurricanes form and most of us are able to keep up to date on the latest weather forecast and models via our phones and computers. 

But how did people get their weather information prior to Twitter? 

For hundreds of years farmers and mariners have looked to the surrounding environment for early warning signs indicating seasonal changes or weather patterns which could impact food and water resources. From astronomy to animals, the environment around us has a way of providing vital clues for those keeping an eye. 

For early Bermuda residents, even the briefest warning of heavy weather was vital on a small isolated island reliant on maritime commerce and communication. Immigrants from Europe in particular lacked the cues signalling approaching bad weather. But Bermudians soon learned that in hurricane season the booming of heavy swells on South Shore— heard Island-wide in the days before the hum of modern traffic and machinery—gave several days warning of an impending storm.  

Sand floating on the water was another sign, caused by the storm surge reaching drier sand untouched by normal high tide. Silk spiders were observed to spin their webs in more sheltered locations as the storm approached, and a lurid sky, marked by clouds radiating from a common centre, heralded the storm’s imminent arrival. Tightly corked bottles of shark liver oil—from puppy sharks caught just before the full moon in summer—served as another warning, the behaviour of the oil changing in advance of the coming storm.  

By the 19th century the studies of scientific observers had begun to yield clues about the anti-clockwise cyclonic nature of hurricanes. The implications for mariners of findings by William C. Redfield in New England were reported in The Royal Gazette in 1837. Royal engineer Major General William Reid, later Governor of Bermuda (1839–46), was in correspondence with Redfield and was himself studying hurricanes using data collected from naval and merchant ships’ logs.  The results of Reid’s research were published in 1838 as An Attempt to Develop the Law of Storms by means of Facts, arranged according to Place and Time, and hence to point out a Cause for the Variable Winds.

On September 11, 1839, five months after his arrival in Bermuda, Gov. Reid experienced the full effect of a hurricane first hand when the Island was struck by a major hurricane. Using the same methods he had employed before, Reid drew a chart of the hurricane, which not only identified the hurricane’s track but also pinpointed the location of numerous ships in the area. 

Reid’s chart of the 1839 hurricane

Advances in communication since then have greatly enhanced forecasting by providing advance notice of storms. Within 20 years of the 1890 Halifax-Bermuda telegraph cable, Bermuda meteorologists were receiving warnings from the US Weather Signal Service. The forecasts were further improved by wireless telegraph, which could be used aboard ship. Into the mid-20th century, storm warnings based on information gathered from meteorological stations and ships in the Western Atlantic were broadcast to the general public from military signal stations. A system of black balls, cylinders and cones during the day and red, green and white lights at night indicated the hurricane’s distance from Bermuda, and as it came closer, its likely path and the expected wind directions. 

The Saffir-Simpson scale, developed in 1971, is now the standard system used to classify what category a storm is based on sustained wind speed. A tropical cyclone is classified as a Category 1 storm if there are maximum sustained winds of 64 knots (kt), or 74mph, for at least a minute. Below that a tropical cyclone is classified as a tropical storm if it has sustained winds between 34kt and 64kt. 

Scientists are still gathering data to help improve current forecasting models and better understand how tropical cyclones form, intensify and move and the devastating effect they can have on coastal communities.  

Climate scientists are examining the impact of climate change on tropical cyclones with data suggesting that the increase in sea temperature caused by global warming makes more heat energy available and increases the potential for the development of tropical cyclones. Scientists have identified several ways that climate change is potentially making hurricanes more dangerous: 

  • Slower moving storms 
  • Stronger winds speeds 
  • Rapid intensification 
  • More rain 
  • Worsening storm surges 

As hurricanes become more dangerous, researchers and climatologists are looking to science and historical data to help explain why this is occurring and how to mitigate the increasing dangers associated with hurricanes. Researchers have even created a whole new scientific discipline, “paleotempestology”, which uses geological evidence to gather data on prehistoric hurricanes. One such study in 2015 examined sediment deposits from Cape Cod, which indicate that 23 severe hurricanes – many of which were likely Category 3 or 4 storms based on the Saffir-Simpson scale – hit New England between the years 250 and 1150. An examination of Bermuda’s historical record also identifies severe storms that have impacted the Island. 

From tropical storms to Category 5 hurricanes, over the past four hundred years Bermuda has been impacted by nearly 200 storms. Of the almost 200 storms that have affected Bermuda only 18% have made landfall, with the majority of those occurring after 1900. Perhaps the most notable of storms to impact Bermuda historically was “the Great Hurricane of 1780”, which struck Bermuda on October 10th 1780. Houses were decimated, fifty ships were driven ashore and with a death toll of 22,000-27,501 in the Lesser Antilles, it is the deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. Though the storm predates the Saffir-Simpson scale, historical research suggests that the hurricane was likely a Category 5 when it plowed through the Caribbean and Bermuda leaving a swathe of devastation in its wake. The thought of a Category 4 hurricane, let alone Category 5, hitting Bermuda is terrifying and I can’t begin to imagine what it was like to experience that in the 18th century. 

Almost 150 years later in 1926 the Havana-Bermuda hurricane, a Category 4 hurricane, struck Bermuda on October 22, and was the most devastating storm ever recorded on the Island. It damaged 40% of the structures in Bermuda and destroyed two homes.

Locals assessing the damage to Oddfellows Hall next to Salvation Army on Court Street

The Opera House, built in 1908 by William Augustus “Syke” Smith, a master builder, was one of the most beautiful buildings in Hamilton. Here it is pictured on October 22, 1926 after sustaining substantial damage in the storm. It was repaired but unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire in 1978.

As I look through our collections for evidence of these historic hurricanes, I see the usual things I would expect; a shark oil barometer and images documenting the damage sustained throughout Bermuda in previous storms. But what about objects and records related to contemporary experiences of modern storms?  

We have hundreds of photos taken by NMB staff during post-storm assessments of the Museum documenting damage sustained. We also have an active wind station and webcam at the point of Commissioner’s House, vital objects that are part of the Island’s hurricane data recording network. These objects are very contemporary artefacts and reflective of the role that modern technology plays in weather forecasting and data collection today.  

Wind speeds recorded at Commissioner’s House during Hurricane Paulette. Note the drop in winds when the eye passed over Bermuda.

A look through my home hurricane supplies suggest other objects that would reflect the present-day experience of hurricanes in Bermuda. Duct tape is there, tarp, buckets, a generator perhaps, definitely the standard bottle of Gosling’s rum and a flashlight. Put together with brilliant stories such as the recent posts “Preparation” and “The Loudest Quiet” by Bermudian writers Kristin White and Yesha Townsend, these objects provide a visceral entry point to the lived experience of hurricanes in present-day Bermuda.  

However, a look on my phone identifies a number of as yet uncaptured elements of the present-day experience which speak to a vital element of hurricane prep and recovery in Bermuda: community and humour. Hunkered down waiting for Paulette to pass I was on my phone constantly checking updates and sharing the memes and gifs which so beautifully and humorously capture the comedic ingenuity of Bermudians and provide levity in the face of the anxiety and dread we all feel during times of crisis.  

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Laughter they say is the best medicine and that is certainly true when anxiety levels run high in the lead up to a hurricane and the horrendous wait until the storm has passed, perhaps made even more unbearable if the power is out and there isn’t a lick of breeze available to cool down. 

Bermuda is a small island community and though we have our differences – Somerset vs St. George’s, plain bread or raisin bread for your fish sandwich – we always come together in times of need and that is one of the magical things about our community. As I look at the latest forecast for Hurricane Teddy, trying to anticipate where the dreaded cone of uncertainty will finally fall, I find myself comforted in the knowledge that we are #BermudaStrong and no matter what is thrown at us we will come through it together, maybe even with a few more memes to share. 

 

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