Fear and Awe at the Hurricane Center

The hurricane center here in Miami is basically a concrete block. It doesn't look like the other buildings on the campus of Florida International University. It's built to be the last building standing.

When the wind got up over about 70 miles an hour, you could hear it through the ventilation shafts. "I feel a little vibration in the floor," noted deputy director Ed Rappaport. They pulled down the metal shutters over the few windows and over the thick glass double doors at the entrance. But there's a back door... two sets of double doors, heavy duty glass and steel, that lead outside into a small, concrete vestibule. As the morning progressed, a trickle of scientists — people who've studied and tracked and lived through numerous hurricanes — snuck down the hall and went out the two sets of doors and stood in the vestibule. And gaped.

When hardened professionals gape, you know you're seeing something extraordinary. "Hey," said one old-timer with what looked like a look of pride on his face, "they just measured a 90-knot gust!"

Standing in that vestibule, you feel a certain kind of fear — fear of something that is so big and powerful and beyond your control. You want to jump out into it to see if you can stand, the way you sometimes feel standing on a precipice and imagine jumping. A palm tree curls back on itself like an eel on a hook. It seems the wind could suck the very breath out of your lungs as it whips by.

Stick your head out and the rain penetrates... it hurts, digs into your pores. You half expect to see a cow fly by. Outside, there is green grass, writhing trees, and nothing above that... no horizon, no middle distance, no buildings... just the whiteness of water that is whipped into a hurtling mist, like something you might make in a blender and then shoot through a fire hose. The sharp line between solid and liquid has been broken. The world outside, for a few hours, is unlivable. It reminds you why, when we think of safety, we think of caves.

Christopher Joyce, a correspondent on NPR's Science Desk, is covering Hurricane Wilma from the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

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