The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

November 1, 2012

Six storms that changed the course of history

By Ty McCormick
Foreign Policy

NEW YORK — Hurricane Sandy's pummeling of the eastern United States has already thrown the presidential campaign off course and disrupted early voting in several states, but could she be the deciding factor in this election? Political scientists have found that bad weather on Election Day typically benefits Republicans, but how much Sandy will affect voter turnout on Nov. 6 remains a mystery. The same can be said of the potential political fallout from the storm. Will President Barack Obama look strong and commander-in-chief-like as he stares down the hurricane, as Sen. John McCain suggested in a recent interview? Or could inadequate disaster relief leave the president mired in a Katrina moment just as voters head to the polls?

If Sandy swings this election one way or the other, it wouldn't be the first time bad weather proved historically decisive. From the French Revolution to the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, meteorological events have made all the difference. Here's a list of six storms that altered the course of history.

DIVINE WINDS

The Mongols may have ruled the largest contiguous empire in human history — at its height, it dominated a quarter of the earth's population — but they failed twice to bring Japan to its knees. On both occasions (in 1274 and 1281), the invading Mongolian fleets were thrashed by powerful typhoons and suffered heavy losses. In the second invasion, some 80 percent of Kublai Khan's hastily built warships sank during a two-day storm, known in Japan as "kamikaze" or "divine wind." In the popular mythology of the time, Raijin, the god of thunder, was said to have stirred up the divine wind and shielded Japan from the Mongols. Some 660 years later, kamikaze would take on another meaning, becoming synonymous with the suicide attacks carried out by the Japanese during World War II.

SUNKEN ARMADA

In 1588, the "invincible" Spanish Armada of 130 ships set sail to attack the English Channel, but was delayed by a series of storms that forced the fleet back to Lisbon. When the Spanish fleet finally arrived two months later, the British Navy, led by Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake, had regrouped and was able to mount a spirited defense of the Channel. Disorganized and battered by British artillery, the Armada retreated and began the treacherous journey back to Spain. Along the way, the leading Spanish ships were rocked by a cyclonic depression off the Bay of Biscay and, three days later, the rearmost ships were battered on the rocks off the shores of Ireland. In total, the Spanish lost more ships in bad weather than in combat with the British.

PARIS HAILSTORM

If the opulence of the royal court at Versailles and France's increasingly shaky financial situation were at the root of the revolution of 1789, perhaps so was the weather. Beginning in 1785, a series of bad harvests — possibly the result of volcanic eruptions in Iceland that shifted weather patterns — contributed to food shortages that roiled an already restive underclass. But the final straw was quite possibly a hailstorm in May 1788 that destroyed crops in a 150-mile radius around Paris, sending grain prices through the roof. Ten months later, following the failed meeting of the Estates-General and the formation of a breakaway National Assembly, the French Revolution was underway.

BHOLA CYCLONE

The Great Bhola cyclone wasn't particularly strong by historical standards — it may not have even been the strongest gale to strike the Indian Ocean in 1970 — but its fateful timing and unlucky course through the densely populated Ganges Delta of East Pakistan made it the deadliest cyclonic storm ever. Carrying 115 mile per hour winds, it destroyed crops and razed entire villages, leaving roughly half a million people dead when all was said and done. Relations between Pakistan and its disconnected easternmost province were already strained before the storm, but the Pakistani government's handling of the Bhola cyclone caused the tensions to boil over into violent anti-government protests and, by 1971, civil war. Nine bloody months later, Bangladeshis had won their independence from Pakistan.

KATRINA

The category-five monster that slammed into New Orleans Aug. 29, 2005, holds an infamous place on record as causing the most extensive damage ($108 billion worth) and as one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States. Some 1,833 people died as a result of the storm, as flood waters from the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Pontchartrain overflowed the antiquated U.S. Army Corps of Engineer-designed levees that protected the city's inhabitants.

And yet, it's not as if they didn't see the devastation coming. Experts had long warned about the cataclysmic effects of a major hurricane's direct impact on low-lying New Orleans and, alert to the danger, President George W. Bush declared a state of emergency two days before Katrina made landfall. But no one, it turns out, was really quite ready for the chaos that ensued. With inadequate preparations made for evacuation, looting and rioting broke out across the city, while residents drowned in the attics of their homes or were left to die in hospital beds.

The president's unqualified FEMA appointee, Michael Brown, was shown to be just that, while Bush was lambasted for a belated and inadequate National Guard response — and for appearing distant. (In Bush's memoirs, he called the scathing comments from Kanye West — "George Bush doesn't care about black people" — the worst moment of his presidency.)

Worse, the perception that America couldn't handle its affairs at home though it had committed heavily to wars overseas seemed to change the national tenor to the effort in Iraq. And it certainly didn't help Bush's cause that Cuba and Venezuela, two nations he vilified, were the first to offer to come to America's aid with pledges of donations and aid.

CYCLONE NARGIS

On May 2, 2008, a strengthening Cyclone Nargis came off the warm waters of the Bay of Bengal and pummeled central Myanmar, causing what would become the worst natural disaster in the country's history. Some 138,000 people are thought to have died as a result of the storm, though figures are notoriously inaccurate, as the government is thought to have suppressed the death toll. High winds, storm surges, and heavy rains destroyed entire villages, stranding millions in remote areas without access to food, water, or medicine. Compounding matters, the ruling military junta refused offers of international aid for nearly four days, only finally appealing to the United Nations on May 6. The first international air deliveries of supplies started arriving two days later, and in limited quantities, as the junta refused access to NGOs and humanitarian relief agencies waiting with planes full of supplies just across the border in Thailand.

The international furor at the Myanmar regime — British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused the government of creating a "man-made catastrophe" — focused attention on the paranoid callousness of the ruling junta. It may not have directly empowered the opposition movement, but the shocking images of corpses dangling from trees and of families starving even weeks after the storm, exposed the regime's incompetence and cruelty and foretold the beginning of the end of the military junta.