Bowery Boys Bookshelf Science

Miracle ABOVE 34th Street: A rainmaker trys to keep NYC quenched

It seems like a conspiracy theory from 2019 — a government plot to conjure weather conditions favorable to New York City by literally seeding the sky from government planes.

But it really did happen in 1950. The results, however, were a bit more — shall we say — chilling.

Howell’s Storm
New York City’s Official Rainmaker and the 1950 Drought

by Jim Leeke
Chicago Review Press

Thanks to a sophisticated and exquisite water system from three separate New York watersheds, it can be easy to take our water for granted. But in 1949, the city faced a water crisis, a potentially devastating drought that threatened to empty the reservoirs and leave the city dangerously dry.

The 1949-50 drought was a complicated emergency and the immediate solutions for the metropolis required taking an upriver drinking water supply from other communities. In effect, the city’s water problems only exacerbated long festering disagreements with the state.

In Jim Leeke‘s excellent, compact new book on the drought, an answer emerges from the pages of science fiction — cloud seeding. Distributing silver iodide into a fertile cloud system, forcing — or, should I say, encouraging — clouds to form rain.

The city brought in meteorologist Dr. Wallace E. Howell to serve as the city’s rainmaker, embarking on several missions (some flown from Floyd Bennett Field) to seed the clouds above the Catskills.

Was Howell successful? The city thought so when, on a beautiful spring day in April, residents awoke to find a ‘baby blizzard’ and record low temperatures.

“I’m Dreaming Of A White Easter”: Dr. Wallace Howell in a snowstorm, possibly of his own making, April 14, 1950 (AP Photo)

Leeke’s most entertaining narratives involve a surprising side effect of magic rain — lawsuits. Can you sue the city for making it rain? Could you prove that torrential storms — which flooded small village and drove tourists from the Catskill’s famous resorts — belonged to New York City?

The absurdity of the situation only adds to the drama of Leeke’s engaging tale of well-meaning scientists and the ramifications of sometimes being too good at your job.

Photo at top: Due to the drought of 1949-50, New Yorkers were told to conserve water. These ladies (performers at the Copacabana nightclub) encourages New Yorkers to save by washing their clothes — in Central Park.

Ephemeral NY

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *