Author Interview: Kathryn Miles 'Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy'

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Author Kathryn Miles gave the first complete moment-by-moment account of Hurricane Sandy in her book, "Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy," now she takes some time to give readers a little insight into her book through our exclusive interview.

"Miles still dedicates her writerly life to uncovering previously ignored narratives and characters," according to her website.

"She is the author of Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy (Dutton 2014), All Standing (Simon & Schuster 2011), and Adventures With Ari (Skyhorse 2009).

Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including Best American Essays, Between Song and Story, Ecotone, History, How To Write About Anything, Outside, Popular Mechanics and The New York Times."

Hurricane Sandy was a devastating storm that the East Coast was not fully prepared for.

Hear all about how Miles uncovered some of the most surprising and shocking information about the storm and the way that some of the some 8 million homes without power could have been prevented.

What prompted you to write Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy? Why was it important that the experience of this particular storm be a focal point for a book?

Like a lot of Americans, I was floored not only by the size and destructive power of the storm, but also but just how pervasive the damage from that storm has been. The statistics are staggering: 8 million homes without power; 10 billion gallons of untreated sewage released into our waterways; nearly 100 Americans drowned in their homes.

These numbers are grim and worthy of attention; but what made them particularly newsworthy was the fact that they were utterly preventable.

Sandy caught our entire nation flatfooted--from meteorologists and city leaders to insurance companies and average citizens--I wanted to know why. Maybe even more importantly, I wanted to find out how we could prevent that from happening again.

Were you surprised by what you found when you talked to some of the professionals at the National Hurricane Center and NWC? If so what was the most surprising piece of information you discovered?

Surprised and shocked. When I sent out to compose SUPERSTORM, I knew I was writing a narrative of one of our country's greatest natural disasters. What I didn't know was that I would also be uncovering a serious meteorological infrastructure crisis with significant implications both for personal safety and national security.

We once led the world in weather forecasting. Not any more.

Hundreds of staff shortages and vacancies, outmoded equipment, vulnerable computer networks, and the possibility of a weather satellite gap have really put us all at risk.

Sandy was the first real spotlight to shine on this crisis, and it's still remarkably under reported.

What do you think everyone can do to be better prepared for a storm of this magnitude?

One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from Anthony Popeil, who served as the Coast Guard's North Carolina Sector Commander during Sandy. I asked him about risk and why we are so willing to take it, particularly in the face of natural disaster. That's the question that really keeps him up at night. What he told me was, "Look, we've all got to realize that Mother Nature always plays to win - and she'll beat you every time." Until we internalize that, we're always going to be unprepared.

Over 70% of people ordered to evacuate during Sandy disobeyed that evacuation order. We have to start heeding those warnings.

We also have to demand a better weather system and emergency management plans that take into account our most vulnerable citizens.

We're also going to have start making some hard choices about how to accommodate rising sea levels and a changing climate. All of our infrastructure was built for a very different world than the one we now occupy.

Where does the Superstorm book stand in terms of your body of work?

I think of myself as an environmental writer, and all of my work is unified insofar as it asks readers to consider the relationships they forge with the natural world. My first book was about backyard naturalism. My second book was about pandemics and famine. SUPERSTORM continues that theme, and it also has me back to my real writing roots: narrative journalism.

The book itself grew out of an article on Sandy that I wrote for OUTSIDE Magazine. I also serve as the weather reporter for POPULAR MECHANICS, so that keeps me current on meteorological issues and why they matter.

My next book is about the race to predict earthquakes and what our nation needs to do to prepare for the next big strike. So right now, I'm definitely the disaster girl. And I'm really loving it.

Are your students at Green Mountain College and Chatham University aware of your books and do you use them as tools in the classroom?

Yes, they're absolutely aware.

I don't assign my books to students - that always feels kind of self aggrandizing, but we do talk a lot about process.

If I'm stuck on a research problem or feeling some writer's block, I'll bring those problems to the class: I think they appreciate knowing that I think writing is really hard work and that we all struggle at it.

What can your literary fans look forward to in the future? Have you already started your new book?

I just returned from my first research trip to California, where I was interviewing several leading seismologists for the earthquake book (we don't have a title yet: my editor likes QUAKELAND. I like SHAKEN. Maybe we should have your readers vote!). It's a fascinating subject and I have a lot to learn before I can begin asking the really hard questions.

What would you like readers to grasp the most in Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy?

The theme at the heart of the book is really about how we all confront risk--and what we do when we're faced with a particularly risky situation. SUPERSTORM takes a really human approach to those questions, and in it I tell the stories of some of the real heros and tragedies of the storm.

I think it's important to remember there are faces and names and families behind each one, and that we all can just as easily be on the hero or the victim side of any disaster.

It all comes down to the choices we make.

Any last words for fans, readers and the Empty Lighthouse audience?

We're living in a weird, wonderful, and sometimes terrifying time. Climate change is going to continue to challenge all of us in lots of ways. That can be demoralizing.

But it's also a great time for old fashioned grass roots democracy. Sandy showed where we are vulnerable; it's up to each of us to speak up and demand changes to our grid, to our mass transportation, to our weather service.

There will be another superstorm, but it doesn't have to be the disaster that was Sandy. It's exciting to know we have the power to make those kinds of changes.