Hurricane Irene, fortunately, did not live up to be the ominous monster that meteorologists feared. Many people aim vitriol at the weather people, claiming that they hype storms to increase ratings. Being of a somewhat cautious nature, I much prefer that the predicted Category 2 hurricane makes land fall as a tropical storm rather than the reverse. No one ever has too many flashlight batteries.
People on Long Island and in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts either remember or have heard the stories of the hurricane of 1938. The weather service was in its infancy and only one meteorologist in New York grasped what he was reading as information came into the weather office. Like Irene, the Hurricane of ’38 formed off the coast of Africa but didn’t make landfall until it reached New York. Using modern measuring techniques, it is believed that the hurricane crossed Long Island as a Category 3, winds of 120-125 mph. The storm surge was 16 feet. In Westhampton, a movie theatre with 20 people attending a matinee, as well as the projectionist, were washed out to sea.
In his book, THE GLORY AND THE DREAM, William Manchester describes the scene in Providence, Rhode Island in words that evoke a horror story. Motorists were trapped in their cars when the surge came into the city at approximately 50 mph. The sea water shorted the electrical systems, leaving headlights on and horns sounding in cars under 13 feet of water on downtown streets.
The hurricane arrived on September 21, 1938, and there was no warning. A group of women from one of the churches in Westerly, Rhode Island and their pastor held their end of summer picnic as planned. All died, their bodies never found. A woman who was ten years old watched as her neighbors, in their home, being pulled into the sea. The house and the bodies washed up on shore 7 miles away.
That there hasn’t a disaster of that magnitude since doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen again. Hurricanes, like tornadoes, are unpredictable. Blizzards can be unpredictable, too, but sometimes the parameters of a disaster expand because some people suffer from limited imagination. In February, 1978, weather forecasters predicted that the Massachusetts area was likely to buried in more than 2 feet of snow from a monster storm that combined the winds and precipitation of a hurricane with a nor’easter, cold air that would keep all the moisture snow. Businesses were encouraged to be pro-active and remain closed. When the storm did not start early in the morning as expected, too many people in decision-making positions, including those who made decisions on the state and local level, assumed that the forecasters got it wrong again. The area had already had a blizzard the previous week that left over two feet of snow. When the storm started in mid-morning, and snow began falling at a rate of 4 inches an hour, everything shut down at the same time, putting tens of thousands of people on the roads at the same time. Cars got stuck on major highways, cars got stuck on city street, cars got stuck along the sidewalks of streets making it impossible for plows to get through. People died on a major interstate road when the snow blocked the exhaust pipes, allowing carbon monoxide to build up. In some places, the snow drifts were 15 feet high, preventing people from exiting buildings. Drifts along the back of my house were high enough to block the first floor windows. It snowed for 33 hours.
In that I am, as previously mentioned, cautious by nature, I was prepared. There was plenty of warning and I had a nine-month old to feed and protect so I had enough provisions to last for a month. We never lost power, a miracle, so the house remained warm. My husband didn’t get home for six days, so it was just my baby and me. Since then, whenever a meteorologist utters the words “snow storm”, the hardware stores and supermarkets are under siege by people who are afraid that, again, traffic won’t move for over a week. So many cars had blocked so many roads that there was a mandatory order from the governor that no vehicles but emergency vehicles were allowed on the road. People who lived near the Boston Common and Beacon Hill were using snow shoes to get around the city.
So, when Irene was predicted, I got ready again. Now it is only the two of us so the pressure is off – no kids to worry about. Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm before it got to New England but the terminology, hurricane vs. tropical storm, didn’t matter much to the people whose homes were flooded or who lost their roofs. My area lost power at 10:45 Sunday morning, before the storm had reached New England, and it was restored today. I knew that I wouldn’t have use of a stove so I stocked up on things that didn’t need to be cooked but after awhile one starts to wonder if the refrigerator really is cold enough to keep food safe.
We had plenty of lanterns and batteries and plenty of books but it is unnatural to have the barometric pressure so low for an extended period of time. Without electricity, there was no internet connection so we were cut off from the world. The telephones didn’t work. For the sake of my over-active imagination, it was good that I could keep in touch with my children by text. One is in New York which was expected to get the worst of the storm but they didn’t so that made breathing easier. The other two live in older areas around Boston and they didn’t lose power at any time. So, we were blessed and survived quite well.
On the other hand, I don’t consider coffee and hot water luxuries and both were missed. I also learned that in this world of instant connection there is no way to call for help in an emergency when there is no telephone or internet service. Hadn’t thought about that before this week.
And, with the exception of two messages, there wasn’t anything in the hundreds of emails that had built up over those days of internet silence that I couldn’t erase without reading.