The Scariest Place on Earth: Eye to Eye with Hurricanes, David E. Fisher

Random House, 1994, 250 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-679-42775-9

In August 1998, CNN’s web site conducted an online poll about which natural disaster would be the worst to face personally. Upon viewing the results (topped by “Volcanic Eruption”), a co-worker commented that the danger of hurricanes is always severely underestimated.

Which can be understood: From an uninformed point of view, hurricanes are just big storms. What’s a few more centimetres of rain and faster winds? Our buildings can tolerate big storms; what’s the deal with hurricanes? If anything, wouldn’t it be fun to go through a hurricanes, having a good party indoor while it’s raining outside?

The difference is that hurricanes are not just “big storms.” 200 kph winds can drive a two by four plank straight into a tree trunk. The waves whipped up by hurricanes are called “storm surges”: They can rise over five meters and sweep coastal areas, destroying everything in their passages up to several kilometres inland.

David E. Fisher explains all of this and much more in The Scariest Place on Earth. It’s not only a witty, readable account of the mechanism of a hurricane (a far more complex process than what could be expected) but also a collection of historical anecdotes about the terrifying power of hurricanes.

Part of what gives The Scariest Place on Earth its power is the first-hand testimony of Fisher, who lived through Andrew, the 1992 hurricane that devastated a part of South Florida. Fisher lives in Miami; Andrew passed in his neighbourhood. Chapter by chapter, he describes the initial signals, the growing alarm, the hasty preparations, the unwavering disbelief, the terrifying power of the storm itself, and then the devastation afterward. It’s incredible storytelling.

But Fisher is a scientist by formation, and The Scariest Place on Earth has for mission to be the ultimate layman book on hurricanes. For the most part, it succeeds. After a historical overview of our growing understanding of this natural phenomena, he spends a lot of time explaining how and why hurricanes form. It’s time well spent; despite the many interacting factors, you will understand hurricanes after this book. Fisher writes clearly, concisely and not without humour. The chapter explaining the origins of hurricanes (“Out of Nowhere”) is nothing short of a textbook example on how to write scientific non-fiction.

Fisher also discusses the effort that have been made to control hurricanes, and the grim prospects of more powerful hurricanes caused by global warming. In the end, he does manages to convince the reader that truly, there is no scarier place on Earth than in the path of an oncoming hurricane.

It almost seems ungrateful to criticise such a good account, but despite an excellent bibliography and complete notes on sources, The Scariest Place on Earth lacks an index. It’s a serious flaw, especially if you plan to use this book as a reference work.

Despite this significant shortcoming, The Scariest Place on Earth is an effective, poignant popular science book. It’s fascinating, easy reading and has a place on the bookshelf of any serious nonfiction reader. As for me, I no longer confuse hurricanes with “big storms.”

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