In 1887, the prospectus for a new, private, residential resort off the Georgia coast offered the nation's elite ("men of means, taste and culture") what they'd been searching for: the promise of perfect weather.
"The climate is mild and even, with no extremes,'' it reported. "No destructive storms or cyclones have ever been experienced.'' Sold! J.P. Morgan, William K. Vanderbilt and Joseph Pulitzer all became charter members of the Jekyll Island Club.
Eleven years later, a club superintendent wrote its chairman with bad news: "A severe storm and tidal wave struck us Sunday. The wharf is wrecked and the windmill was blown from the tower. The bridges, pavilion and bath houses are washed away. The golf ground and many other parts of the island were submerged. Many trees were blown down.''
That was the hurricane of 1898 — the strongest hurricane ever to hit Georgia, and the most recent major one as well.
This winter, Americans frozen within the encroaching polar vortex, parched in the Central Valley, icebound in Atlanta or fearing mudslides in Southern California have shared something with those Gilded Age tycoons: the dream of settling in a place free of extreme weather and natural disasters.
Maybe, just maybe, there is somewhere to run to, somewhere to hide, a Shangri-La of tranquility.
The mission was to find it.
But success proved elusive.
"It's pick your poison,'' says Steve Bowen, meteorologist at Aon Benfield, a reinsurance firm. "Nowhere in this country can you say, 'I have nothing to worry about.' You can move to escape a specific peril, but not peril in general.''
Not in a land riddled with fault lines and bordered by two oceans, with two north-south mountain ranges but no big ones running east-west to keep Arctic air from flowing south and tropical air from going north.
Weather Underground historian Chris Burt calls America "uniquely positioned" for natural calamity: hurricanes in the Southeast, Nor'easters along the Eastern Seaboard; tornadoes in the lower Plains, blizzards in the upper parts; wildfires across much of the West; earthquakes and volcanoes liable to erupt along the Pacific Coast, which also is vulnerable to tsunamis.
Not to mention sinkholes in Florida, avalanches in the Rockies and flash floods in the Appalachians; hail in a corridor from International Falls, Minn., to Austin, and ice storms from Cody, Wyo., to Bangor, Maine; lake-effect snowstorms far from the Great Lakes; and monsoons in Arizona.
Looking for Paradise? The town by that name in Washington state had thunderstorms and lightning last August that endangered hikers. A tornado struck in the vicinity of the one in Kansas last April, and two years ago the one in Pennsylvania was damaged by both a tornado and a hurricane.
Paradise, Calif., was blacked out by a blizzard in 2011 and shaken by an earthquake in 2010. In 2008, a wildfire forced evacuation of 10,000 area residents. This month, a sinkhole opened on state Highway 191.
Paradise, Ariz., is a ghost town — mercifully. A wildfire swept through in 2011.
Southern California once seemed like the perfect solution, despite its penchant for mudslides, floods and wildfires. San Diego was so widely acknowledged to have the nation's best weather it could have been inscribed in Latin on the municipal seal.
But in 2003, San Diego County was the site of the state's largest wildfire in more than a century. And now, with a three-year drought, some of the hosannas are drying up. San Diego's rainfall this year is 44% of normal, and city officials are calling for voluntary conservation measures.
"I love (to visit) San Diego, but there's no way I'd live in Southern California,'' says Jennifer Prell, president of Paxem, a Cary, Ill.-based seniors relocation agency.
There's always the mild Pacific Northwest, with its stately Cascades peaks. But some are liable to erupt over the next millennium. Mount St. Helens in Washington exploded in 1980. Mount Rainier has the largest ice cap of any mountain in the continental U.S.; when it blows, maybe in the next 200 years, that ice likely will melt, producing a 30-foot-high moving wall of volcanic mud.
Similarly, the Desert Southwest's allure has been diminished by everything from drought to hail, which descended on Phoenix in 2010. Hailstones the size and consistency of billiard balls dented cars, smashed windows and destroyed roof tiles, causing more than $2.7 billion in damage and putting Arizona atop the year's list of states with the most property insurance losses.
Other dreamy locations have risen to take their place, each rich in non-meteorological or seismic amenities such as good restaurants, attractive scenery, chic shopping, art galleries and golf courses:
• Western North Carolina. A mountainous region sufficiently cool in summer and mild in winter to produce the "half-back" phenomenon: Northerners move to Florida, get a taste of the summer humidity and hurricanes, and go halfway back. They settle in an area such as Asheville, whose climate induced
Vanderbilt's brother George to select it in the 1880s as site of the largest Gilded Age estate, Biltmore.
But the half-backs are still comparatively close to hurricanes. In 2004, the remnants of several such storms produced flooding that caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage.
• Utah. A sunny, dry state that, despite a substantial population, has the third-lowest number of federal disaster declarations over the past 60 years. With professional stops in Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, Florida and Ohio, former University of Utah football coach Urban Meyer qualifies as a relocation expert. "I still think this is the best climate in the country,'' he told The Deseret News during a visit to Salt Lake City in 2012.
Coach didn't mention floods, like those of January 2005, the worst natural disaster ever in southern Utah; wildfires, which periodically menace the same region; lake-effect snowstorms, which occur when cold air flows across the Great Salt Lake and dumps its moisture as snow on shore; or the fact that Salt Lake City is due for a magnitude-7 earthquake sometime in the next 300 years.
• Idaho. The state with the nation's lowest homeowners' insurance rates. Bob Hartwig, the economist who heads the Insurance Information Institute, says that reflects its relative lack of natural risks.
Emphasis on relative. Idaho is prone to blizzards and wildfires, like the one in 2012 that burned more than 1,000 acres south of Pocatello and destroyed more than 60 homes.
Idaho's opposite is Oklahoma, like Idaho a state with low property prices. But due to tornadoes, thunderstorms, ice storms and hail, Sooners pay the nation's fifth-highest homeowner's insurance rates.
JUST TALKING ABOUT WALKING
Although people talk about picking up and moving to the perfect climate, there's no reason to believe they'd do so, even if they found it.
Exhibit A is Florida, a stew of extreme weather and other risks, from Category 5 hurricanes to sinkholes and lightning strikes (in which it leads the nation).
Hartwig says that over the next five years one in 10 of the nation's new homes will be built in Florida. "It's booming,'' agrees Walter Molony of the National Association of Realtors. "They can't build fast enough.''
Hartwig has heard of people moving relatively short distances to be farther from water — an ocean or river — "but I have never heard anyone who relocated because of fear of extreme weather.''
Prell, the relocation expert, agrees that weather is a factor only in its more prosaic forms: "They say it's too hot or too cold. I've never had anyone tell me, 'I don't want to move there because of a volcano.' ''
The Realtors association says the median distance of a move for an American selling one home and buying another is a mere 18 miles.
From age 65 to 74, that rises to 40 miles, with almost one in five moving 1,000 miles or more. Many of these involve retirees, but Molony says proximity to family and friends trumps weather; the snow-dusted guy on the elevator talking about moving to Santa Fe (forget the wildfires) or Fort Myers (forget the hurricanes) is probably doing just that.
That could change. John Wallace, CEO of the Oregon Association of Realtors, says that traditionally people planning a retirement want two things: to be closer to family (read: grandchildren) and to be able to play outdoors (golf, tennis) year-round.
But with these new extreme weather patterns, he says, "there may be a third factor that's considered.''
Absent a move to a meteorological Eden, it's incumbent on people to change their "internal weather map,'' according to Maripat Abbott, a relocation counselor. By that she means their perception of, and reaction to, the weather.
"Ask, 'What do I need to do today?' '' she suggests. "It might be taking a yoga class. It might be taking up snowshoeing.'' That way, she says, "you can control the weather inside yourself.''
You can also dress appropriately, a coping mechanism not always available in the past. In 1951, three of four respondents to a Gallup survey said they disapproved of women wearing shorts in public.
The weather may only seem to be getting worse, according to Paul Walker of the AccuWeather service, who in 36 years as a meteorologist says he has seen it all. He says, for example, that by historical standards Eastern winters have been mild in recent years, making a return to form this year — hard to take for someone who doesn't own a plowing service or a salt mine.
Also, people seem to be paying more attention to bad weather. Weather Undergound's Burt attributes that to the expansion of cable TV news and a growing awareness of climate change, which makes wild weather seem less like an aberration and more like a sign of things to come.
It's been more than 125 years since the millionaires searching for the perfect climate settled on Jekyll Island. By 1904, one magazine called it "the richest, most exclusive, most inaccessible club in the world.'' But World War II made travel and upkeep difficult, and then jet travel opened a world of balmy destinations. Today the island is owned by the state.
Burt says he knows of only one place free of atmospheric disturbances, largely because there is no atmosphere: "It's called the moon.''