How a rainmaker saved NYC from drought — and became public enemy No. 1

In December 1949, the archbishop of New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, begged the city’s Catholics to pray for rain.

The drought plaguing the five boroughs that year was so dire that city officials considered water rationing or even pumping in water from the Hudson. Instead, they turned to a group of scientists who could reportedly “create” rain.

The group from the GE Research Lab, which included Dr. Bernard Vonnegut (older brother of writer Kurt), had recently determined that dry ice or silver iodide could be dropped into a cloud to create precipitation.

Whether the cocktail could create enough rain to hit the ground, much less solve the crisis, was a larger question.

By February 1950, New York’s reservoirs were down to just 46.9 percent capacity and the city was 106 days away from entirely losing its water pressure. The scientists recommended a slim, youthful-looking 35-year-old Harvard research meteorologist named Wallace Howell to fix the problem.

As the news of his appointment as New York’s rainmaker went public, Howell was careful not to overpromise. He referred to his work as “rain stimulation” rather than rainmaking, and called the endeavor a “challenging experiment,” according to “Howell’s Storm: New York City’s Official Rainmaker and the 1950 Drought” by Jim Leeke (Chicago Review Press), out now.

Still, Howell received $100 per day for his efforts (with a $1,500-per-month cap), making him the “highest-paid cloud physicist in the world,” he told The New Yorker, which also noted that he “hoped to replace his 9-year-old Studebaker with a new car.”

With the city allocating $50,000 for a six-month effort, a plan was set. Howell would use NYPD planes to drop dry ice into clouds over the Catskills, and a silver iodide generator on the ground would send the compound rising upwards, to hopefully create the perfect storm.

For his first flight, on March 28, 1950, reporters and photographers descended on Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, where a pilot and a mechanic loaded 100 pounds of dry ice into an NYPD twin-engine Grumman Goose.

But ironically, Howell’s takeoff was delayed — due to rain. After the Grumman Goose finally became airborne, it took him just a few minutes to realize his first flight would be a failure.

“We were held to such a late start,” he said, “that the clouds we wanted to work over the watershed had already passed too far to the east.”

After several more failed attempts, Howell enjoyed his first successful flight, on April 13. “Howell said later they had seeded the clouds for at least an hour, dropping 100 pounds of dry ice at a rate of about one pound per air mile along the track,” Leeke writes. “Snow was flurrying in the watershed area even before Howell had been seeding … he was unsure whether his dry ice contributed to anything later.”

Still, New Yorkers took notice when snow blanketed the city that day, a rarity for mid-April. The Brooklyn Eagle reported that city residents “were convinced that [Howell] caused today’s precipitation.”

Even Horace Stoneham, the president of the New York Giants baseball team, said of Howell, “Look at that snow, and us with our opening game coming up only four days from now. That guy had better work out a schedule.”

Howell’s subsequent flights seemed to increase existing rainfalls by small amounts, though he could never actually prove he’d “made rain.”

In the meantime, counties throughout the state started blaming Howell for their own weather woes.

The mayor of Monticello led a delegation to Manhattan to protest Howell’s activities, saying, “That man is making it miserable for us. We want relief.” Sullivan County officials, citing damage to tourism, even threatened Howell with “possible indictment and prosecution.”

Even so, Howell’s six-month contract was renewed and his term as New York’s rainmaker ran through February 1951, by which time the city’s reservoirs had reached 99.6 percent capacity. He had flown six times attempting to make rain and seeded clouds with silver iodide from the ground on 34 occasions.

Howell said that “in his estimation, cloud seeding had boosted rainfall over the Catskills by 14 percent, adding about 15 billion gallons of water to the reservoirs,” Leeke writes.

Angry upstate New Yorkers blamed Howell for the deluge. One farmer told The Associated Press that people he knew would “shoot Dr. Howell on sight” for how recent rains washed away their insecticide. And an editorial in the Catskill Mountain News inquired, “What would happen to [resorts and farms] if this man-made rain … flooded and otherwise damaged properties in this region? Would New York pay for the loss of business and the destruction of property?”

In the aftermath, more than 100 upstate entities filed suit against New York City and Howell for alleged damage or loss. All were unsuccessful.

Undeterred, Howell carried on working as a rainmaker in the private sector until November 1964 when an official report by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council compared rainmaking to astrology, concluding that the results of both are impossible to verify.

The media seized on the likening of Howell to an astrologer, and his private business soon dried up. (Later on, Howell quietly returned to rainmaking for the US Department of the Interior until 1984.)

Howell died in June 1999 at the age of 84. Always dedicated to his work, his accidental notoriety was an intrusion he could have done without.
“I didn’t know I was going to be a celebrity,” he told The New Yorker. “And I don’t want to be one.”

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