Review: 'Superstorm' a thrilling, disturbing look at Hurricane Sandy

Sandy the hurricane, the superstorm, the oddity. Author Kathryn Miles documents the journey, the science, and the utter devastation that would lie in its wake.

Kathryn Miles opens her book with an ultra-wide-angle scene on the night of Oct. 29, 2012, as scientists in the International Space Station peer out the craft's windows. "From there, the cloud cover seemed almost limitless … tightly coiled bands so huge they filled the windows of the station, so thick they showed only the briefest insinuation of an eye. It was the largest storm the planet had ever seen — a storm big enough to consume the entire Eastern Seaboard and beyond."

Starting from that distant perspective, Miles, a journalist and writer in residence at Green Mountain College in Vermont, quickly drills down to the nitty-gritty in Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy. We all remember the unprecedented size and power of that storm — and those of us on the west coast of Florida remember the sighs of relief we breathed as it steered away from us on its highly unusual path. We also remember the devastation it wreaked over thousands of miles in nine countries and 24 states, and especially its dreadful toll on New York City and surrounding areas.

Miles, though, is interested in telling us the stories we might not have heard. Her book begins more than a week before that fateful landfall and looks at the experiences of those who tried to predict this unique storm and to protect and rescue its potential victims, as well as some of those who did not escape its wrath.

Much of Superstorm focuses on the science of meteorology as it applies to tropical storms and hurricanes — and the politics that can affect that science. After that prologue at the space station, the book moves back more than a week to early Sunday, Oct. 21, as two young forecasters crunch data on the midnight shift in a National Weather Service office in New Jersey. When the supercomputer at the ECMWF — that's European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, just the first of the book's swirl of acronyms — spits out its product, the two are stunned. It predicts a storm so "enormous it would keep marching up into the colder waters of the Atlantic, eventually turning not out to sea, like practically every other storm in recorded history, but inland instead."

Preposterous, they say to each other. "The model will resolve itself tomorrow. … I mean, how could it possibly be accurate?"

For the next week, weather scientists at various government agencies and other places will discover it's all too correct. Yet the highly unusual nature of the storm makes it even more difficult to forecast than the average hurricane — and those are plenty unpredictable. (Miles notes Hurricane Charley's 2004 hard right turn into Punta Gorda as an example.) A second tropical system, Tony, was trailing Sandy, and as it approached the Northeast a winter gale was barreling in from the west.

Predicting the storm had other complications. Despite huge improvements in forecasting technology, the National Weather Service and National Hurricane Center have been chronically underfunded for decades, short on money for research, staffing, equipment and public education — a crucial component.

In the case of Sandy, there were unusual jurisdictional problems as well: As the storm moved north and became extratropical, official responsibility for communicating its dangers was supposed to pass from the NHC to the NWS, which scientists at both agencies and in state and local governments feared would complicate the process of warning and evacuating people in Sandy's path.

That is a critical problem with every storm, and much more so with one like Sandy. As Miles points out, many people, probably most, who live in storm-vulnerable areas don't fully understand the threat. Just one of her examples is the "cone of uncertainty" in the NHC's forecasts. It "shows only the predicted path of the eye of the storm; it doesn't take into account the total size of that storm, or how strong it is. Most people don't know this. Instead, they tend to assume either that the cone is the actual breadth of the storm's reach, or that if they live outside the cone they're safe from harm."

In the case of Sandy, the forecasters faced trying to protect a population with only rare exposure to such storms, yet an enormously vulnerable one: "In New York alone, approximately two hundred thousand people live within a few feet of high-tide levels. New Orleans is the only city to have more. And unlike New Orleans, New York doesn't own a single levee."

Miles interweaves the stories of several of the meteorologists with those of such groups as the U.S. Air Force's 53rd Weather Reconnaissance unit, otherwise known as the Hurricane Hunters. Their flights are both invaluable and incredible: "The only way to know what's going on in a system — the only way to assess wind speeds and barometric pressure and just how powerful a storm has become — is to put yourself in that storm."

She also introduces us to the members of a Coast Guard search-and-rescue unit based in North Carolina, whose heroism is just as dazzling. They, too, will fly into the storm and drop right into its howling waters. Miles writes about several ships enveloped by Sandy. The families aboard Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian cruise ships describe furniture and belongings flying around their darkened cabins and huge waves crashing into upper-deck portholes. It's a nightmare vacation, to be sure, but they were luckier than the crew of the Bounty.

Miles weaves their story in too, from the decision by Capt. Robin Walbridge to sail into the storm, despite the fact that the Bounty had "been built as a movie prop instead of a seagoing ship" and was in poor condition, to the near-miraculous rescue of all but two of the crew by the Coast Guard unit after the ship breaks apart.

The book builds powerfully to the day of Sandy's landfall, when it flooded New York's tunnels and subways as, bizarrely, an entire neighborhood burned in Queens.

Even for those of us who have heard countless hurricane stories, Superstorm is a valuable addition. It goes beyond the scary radar screens and harrowing photos of the aftermath to the ongoing, massive problems of predicting and surviving such storms. We may hope profoundly that Sandy was one of a kind, but even so it has lessons to teach us.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.