What Catastrophe? The Real Dangers of Forgetting Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy hits Red Hook, Brooklyn, prompting our columnist to wonder if we’ll learn its hard lessons.

Immanuel Velikovsky is remembered, when he is remembered at all, as a charlatan, at best a crank. His legacy is not his own writing, a series of books proposing various disasters at the planetary scale within historical times, supported by earnest, zealous research in comparative mythology, some creative astronomy, and attention to the circumstances of the most recent mass extinctions found in the geological record. The substance of that work is ignored by the serious. Instead, Velikovsky has become synonymous with his own persecution, an uproar that reached McCarthy-like levels of irrationality and invective even before the release of his book, Worlds in Collision, in 1950.

The Velikovsky affair, as that scandal came to be known, was a prolonged fight between establishment insiders wishing to protect a comforting uniformitarian narrative—all the change that has ever taken place on Earth can be accounted for by processes we see at work today—and an uncredentialed stranger reviving the catastrophist arguments of pre-Darwinian science: Sometimes the sky does fall. The confrontation featured academic boycotts, the pulping of an entire print run, and organized public denouncements led by no less a hero of the rational than Carl Sagan. The latest of several examinations of the “affair,” Michael Gordin’s The Pseudoscience Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe, appeared last September.

Why all the fuss? In a word, fear. Worlds in Collision described an alarming billiard-ball vision of our solar system as a means to explain the tantalizing evidence of natural disasters that Velikovsky saw preserved in fragments of ancient history. His scheme includes, in part, Venus being belched out of Jupiter only three or four millennia ago, swinging close to Earth on two occasions 700 years apart, generating on the first of those fly-bys, he thought, the splitting of the Red Sea (encroaching on the biblical), the pillars of smoke and fire, and the ten plagues we know from the book of Exodus. Also the dewfall of manna (carbohydrates from the tail of comet Venus), the mountains skipping like rams (the hills like young lambs), and, when Venus became electromagnetically entangled with Earth, a booming sound that gave us the very name Yahweh.

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Take it or leave it; surely the most grandiose aspects of Velikovsky’s cosmography cannot be valid (they tend to ignore more than a few well-regarded laws governing planetary motion), but not all his ideas are subjects to be mocked and mocked again. It is fitting that Worlds in Collision, and its sequels, Ages in Chaos (1952) and Earth in Upheaval (1952)—indeed Velikovsky’s entire intellectual project—is so ardently suppressed. Fitting, too, that it is still so widely craved. Under a second publisher, Worlds in Collision became a best seller. Paperbacks remain easy to find, though filed online and off next to books on Atlantis, the hollow Earth theory, and Erich von Däniken’s treatises on aliens seeding culture in Peru.

Velikovsky was an amateur astronomer—and amateur historian, and amateur geologist—but he was a professional psychiatrist. He met and corresponded with Jung, was trained in Vienna by a student of Freud. A theme of Worlds in Collision, and the overt thesis of a 1982 book, Mankind in Amnesia, is that we, mankind, have witnessed grievous, culture-ending catastrophes in our shared past and have developed in response a neurosis-inducing, culture-spanning habit of forced forgetting. Tales of catastrophe—a deluge sweeping the continents, kingdoms sinking beneath the waves—are regarded as myth, reduced to fable, because to explore them as fact, ancient memory, he argues resonantly, is too much for us to bear. As an adult might bury a childhood trauma in order to carry on, we actively suppress evidence of disaster, ignore its painful implications, even when it reaches our front door.

It reached mine in October. Hurricane, then “Superstorm” Sandy—awkwardly renamed because the causes and enormous extent of her wind field defied old-normal meteorological definitions—brought nearly 14 feet of storm surge to New York Harbor, seven or so of which overtopped the granite rip-rap two blocks from my home. The photographs you may have seen, the ones that got the most viral play, showed the brick warehouses at the foot of Van Brunt Street (the main drag in Red Hook, Brooklyn), awash, merging into the harbor. Those were taken early, at the high tide before the storm actually hit. No one was there with an iPhone when the water returned that night to flood the neighborhood up to four feet deep for 15 blocks, filling basements, snuffing out furnaces on the eve of winter, floating cars, and depositing a stray cabin cruiser in the middle of a cobblestoned street near Ikea. (Right at the harbor’s edge but jacked up high above its parking lot, that emporium rode out the storm with little damage.)

Red Hook, beloved for its seaside-village airs, is mostly built on reclaimed ground; old maps show a sweep of salt marshes between low islands. The surge essentially rediscovered that topography. My current apartment is on a block the locals know wryly as “Coffey Heights.” You’d be hard-pressed to notice the “heights,” a fossil island, on a normal day—the area appears flat to the casual observer—but they were just enough to keep the water out. Not so my old house ten blocks inland; making the rounds to check on neighbors after the storm (as Occupy Sandy, née Occupy Wall Street, was busy organizing volunteer armies of basement pumpers and swabbers), I found the ground floor marked by a scummy high tide line four feet up the walls.

The clear lesson here: Respect the sea. The Atlantic covers nearly 32 million square miles and can be up to 27,500 feet deep. What minuscule part of that water needs to move to flood one square mile to a depth of one foot? Four feet? Forty? A storm surge, as the meteorology geeks tried to warn us while Sandy made her slow approach, is not a wave. It is a localized, sustained raising of the sea level, on top of which waves may yet reach even higher. Rising that night, piled by the storm winds, drawn up further by the pull of a full moon, the water found its old shoreline limits in Manhattan, too, erasing the bold edges of the island, filling the river tunnels, soaking an imprudently located power plant, killing the lights and, for a time, business as usual. The storm surge then carried on up the Hudson, nothing to stop it, reaching nine-plus feet at the Indian Point nuclear power plant (how high is too high?) and four feet at Cold Spring, more than 50 miles from the river’s mouth, where the lower village was flooded deeper than anyone could remember. Respect the motherfucking sea.

Sandy made landfall only a month ago as I write. It feels like a million years. The papers, local television and radio, the Internet, after a period of exceptional focus on the exceptional storm and its exceptional destruction, have largely moved on to other stories. So too small talk, the chatter of friends, dinner-table conversations. The power has come on in some buildings only in the last few days, and parts of the sprawling Red Hook Houses, one of the city’s largest public housing projects—like scattered public housing units throughout the city—are still without heat. But as you read this, I’m willing to gamble, the “superstorm” is all but forgotten—an aberration, old news, so last year.

Immanuel Velikovsky would have understood.

In Mankind in Amnesia, more stridently as he was already then dismissed as a fringe figure, the author warned about the true danger of repressing memories of human powerlessness. Following Freudian models, he believed the trauma would remain active in the subconscious. Then, over time, the repressing parties would feel the urge to reenact the original theater of pain, whatever it was, only this time with the power relationships flipped. Man kicks kid. Kid kicks dog. Dog bites kid in the ass. Ever grandiose—also, writing during the Cold War, a man of his time—Velikovsky pointed to nuclear weapons. He believed the development of technology that could destroy civilization was a symptom of the effort to stifle memories of abuse by natural forces that had destroyed civilization in the deep past. If the original trauma was not addressed, he wrote, we risked nuking each other into oblivion as a psychological balm.

What horrors will our inevitable Sandy repressions bring? Will we build bigger on the shifting sands of barrier islands, taller on the graves of wetlands, our primal fears, twisted by their instinctive rejection, causing us to taunt the ocean yet more? Surf higher waves? Go to sea in smaller boats?

As that sea warms, as the storms it delivers become less and less familiar (how does anyone, even my young 40-something peers, still argue that this is the climate we grew up with?), job one is to confront the pandemic of terror behind the denial. Before we can even talk about reintroducing wave-calming mussel beds, or planting sawgrass on the dune tops to cheat the wind, before we throw a surge barrier across the Verrazano-Narrows, or tax carbon, or build green roofs and wind farms and the denser conurbations that will be necessary when we all park our cars for the last time—before all that, we need first to do the hard work of recognizing, very simply, what is real.

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