Keeping an eye on the hurricane

Catastrophic storms are Randy de Armond Dilday’s inspiration.

For Randy De Armond Dilday, this season of back-to-back hurricanes could hardly be called an ill wind.

The islander’s debut novel “Cat 5,” a thriller about a severe hurricane, hit bookstore shelves just as Ivan roared into Alabama last week. It’s his good fortune that this storm season resembles his book about increased storms from climate change, a volume five years in the making.

“For years I was hearing people saying ‘the weather’s changing, the weather’s changing,’” Dilday said. “I began to sort of marinate on that and I wondered, what if the weather did fundamentally change? What signs would we see?

“We’re looking at some storms right now that are very unique in terms of frequency and intensity.”

It was Hurricane Linda – a Category 5 storm, defined by sustained winds of at least 155 miles per hour – that first inspired Dilday.

In 1997, Hurricane Linda, the largest storm ever reported in the Pacific, pummeled the California coast.

The event catalyzed Dilday’s desire to pen the book about the fascinating, deadly storms that he calls “hurricanes on steroids.”

While Category 5 hurricanes reach the United States on average once very 100 years, Dilday points out that the last 70 years have seen three make landfall: the 1935 Florida Keys/Labor Day Hurricane, Camille in 1969, and Andrew in 1992.

Even storms clocked at the lesser Category 4 or 3 pack more of a wallop than anything man can devise.

“A single hurricane, according to the National Hurricane Center, releases more energy than all the atomic weapons on earth,” Dilday said. “So we’re talking about a lot of power.”

Dilday has studied his subject in some depth, even learning about the science of paleoclimatology, the study of the climatic past through signs of weather in core samples of ice and earth “laid down like dinosaur bones.”

The storms have a universal fascination for people, Dilday says, because they are an archetype of “life, motion, yin-yang, a vortex of opposing forces, a point of origin.”

The storms come to life as small whirlwinds spinning off the Sahara Desert that begin to gather moisture when they get over the ocean.

“They begin to pick up moisture,” he said. “As the water evaporates up into this vortex, water droplets condense and at that point of condensation they release latent energy in the form of heat. As the heat draws more air up through the wall, rotation increases. It’s nothing more than an enormous engine.”

Personal stories

Although Dilday is interested in the natural world, he is not a “nature writer.” The storm he concocts is more a catalyst to reveal character than an isolated phenomena.

“It wasn’t enough to write about a hurricane because hurricanes are benign,” he said. “They don’t have a personality, they don’t have an agenda. I’m not just interested in writing about disasters, I want to write about people, how they respond to these things.”

To learn to develop fictional characters, Dilday practiced his craft for 15 years before tackling “Cat 5.”

Dilday polished his craft with screenwriter friends, took seminars and joined a writers’ group.

But, he says, most helpful in honing his art is the habit he developed of taking up the pen every day.

“I’m up at 4 a.m. to do so,” he said. “Religiously: today, yesterday, the day before. Writing is a real ‘time vampire,’ so I had to make time for it. (The early morning) was the only time that I could cannibalize to hone my craft.”

Dilday may work out a loose outline of a plot, but he stays flexible as the plot emerges. Instead of rushing through a rough draft and going back to edit, he edits as he writes, turning over the finished manuscript to a professional editor.

Writing, when he is “on,” is, for Dilday, like entering the “fictive dream” psychologists term the altered state of the rapt reader.

“I think there’s a similar place that you get to when you’re writing, when you’re on and you’re in touch with your characters,” he said. “I’m not saying I’m there. But there are definitely forces at work that you tap into.”

One piece of hurricane research Dilday hasn’t yet accomplished is the experience of a real storm, but he’s on a short list to fly with the “53rd,” the hurricane hunters that operate out of Biloxi, Miss.

The hunters take authors, screenwriters, journalists and others with a professional interest up with them to puncture the eye wall of a hurricane.

“I know it’s a little ironic that I’ve written this book about a hurricane without having been in one,” he said. “I’m actually looking forward to it.”

* * * * *

Storm stories

“Cat 5” by Bainbridge Island author Randy De Armond Dilday is available at Eagle Harbor Books. See for more information.

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