Not only did Sandy merge with an Arctic cold front to create The Perfecter Storm, she merged with an election. Now that her remnants are spinning themselves out, it’s time to get back to the work of prognostication. In this venture, Sandy will be gone, but not forgotten. Until Election Day, and possibly after, analysts will consider Sandy’s impact on the outcome: Was the government’s reaction too fast or too slow? Was it sufficient in scope? Will climate change be a late entrant into this election’s discourse? Will turnout on Election Day be down in the hardest hit areas? Did the candidates say the right things or were they hurt by a perception that they were trying to parlay a disaster into a political points? So much to speculate on!
The weather, you may have noticed, happens everywhere, and so has made its mark on history. Most famously, the Spanish Armada was crippled by a hurricane off the coast of Ireland in August 1588. They would not defeat the British, nor would they ever again enjoy dominance over the seas. (NOTE: It is my personal belief that this was not technically a hurricane, but like Sandy was probably post- or extra-tropical. Talk to me after class if you want me to expound.)
The weather has shaped science too. Thunderstorms were the rage in the 18th century: Benjamin Franklin flew his famous kite, while Italian physician Luigi Galvani unpacked the electrochemical workings of nerves and muscles by observing the twitches of frogs legs rigged up to wires. As luck would have it, the discovery of the Galvanic response is also acknowledged as an influence on a literary classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which itself was a by-product of the weather. Shelley hatched the idea for The Modern Prometheus while she and her pals (including Percy Shelley and Lord Byron) were fighting cabin fever during the damp, cold, volcanically-induced weather of The Year Without a Summer.
For all that and volumes more, the intersection of the weather and American politics is a little bit slipperier. The aforementioned Year Without A Summer certainly did a small part shaping American history. It drove western migration from New England to as far west as Ohio and Indiana because of crop failures. Some towns in Vermont and Maine virtually vanished. Among those to move was the family of Joseph Smith, who resettled in western New York where Moroni would appear to him and Mormonism was born. (I think I just tied the weather from 200 years ago to this election. Score!)
Direct impacts of weather on American politics are surprisingly hard to find. One clear example comes from here in Chicago. In 1979, sitting Mayor Michael Bilandic was blamed for mismanaging the city’s response to two blizzards shortly before the mayoral primary. Thirty-five inches of snow fell over about two weeks and Chicago was simply not ready: streets went unplowed, garbage wasn’t picked up, mass transit was crippled, and six weeks later voters made Bilandic a lame duck mayor. The beneficiary of his bunglings, Jane Byrne, has asserted that she would have won without the snow, but historians and local lore alike are not so sure.
Nationally, if there is one leader we can attribute to the weather, it’s Herbert Hoover. Looking at his resume, Hoover seemed much more suited to policy architect/wonk than president. His career was as a mining engineer who rose to Secretary of Commerce under Harding and then Coolidge. Having made a name for himself helping to rebuild Europe after World War I, Hoover tried a brief run at the presidency in 1920, but essentially bowed out after losing the primary in California, his home state. It wasn’t until 1927 that he’d have his chance.
The rains started in the fall of 1926, causing significant flooding, but more importantly saturating the ground, priming it for the real water to come. Those would arrive in the spring of 1927 when the rains came and didn’t stop. They corresponded with and exacerbated the annual spring melt. They led to the breaching of almost 150 levees and inundated an estimated 27,000 square miles. They caused the greatest flood in American history.
Hoover spearheaded the relief effort. There was no FEMA then and he famously leveraged private resources to help with the relief effort noting, “I suppose I could have called in the whole of the army, but what was the use? All I had to do was to call in Main Street itself.” He coordinated ships to bring supplies and built tent cities to house the flood’s refugees. Perhaps most importantly Hoover utilized some new technology, the radio, to take to the airwaves with his pitch for relief efforts. This elevated his profile among the electorate and set the stage for his successful bid for the presidency in 1928.
That would be the only election Hoover would ever win. Those tent cities were eerie predecessors to the notorious Hoovervilles of the Depression. And there massive inequity in the relief effort for African-Americans who were affected. Hoover initially kept those quiet, but by 1932 those failures drove support to Franklin Roosevelt, helping to end African-American allegiance to Republicans that dated back to Lincoln. Mother Nature may have given him his chance at the White House, but she also laid the foundation to take it away.