Before the days of orderly alphabetical naming of hurricanes, “The Long Island Express” was one of several names given to the Great Hurricane of 1938, as it was also known. That storm was disastrous to the Jersey shore, Long Island and New England. I was six years old and my brother David was nine. We were in Stone Harbor with our Mother when the storm hit. My memories of the storm itself are vivid, but I am not sure why we were there on September 21—surely a school day—but Mother never had a high regard for perfect attendance. I imagine we had been invited to use a friend’s beach house in the off-season, something that happened almost annually.
I’m guessing the power was out because I remember a darkish house, the wind blowing wildly, and someone telling us the town was flooded. I think the worst of the storm had passed in the night, because the rain had stopped. Mother found a pair of hip boots in a closet, and pulled them on. She told us she had to go out to find milk and other things we needed, and we were to stay inside until she got back. Generally speaking, David and I were obedient children; but we were also curious and adventurous. So, out we went once Mother had gone. I remember that the house was somewhat sheltered at the back by a rise, perhaps a sand dune. When you walked to the top, you could see the ocean, a block or so away. But just as we glimpsed the rolling, gray sea, we were both blown over by a sudden gust of wind coming from the back side of the hurricane. We scrambled down the hill and raced into the house and never told anybody about our misadventure.
My memories of the Ash Wednesday Storm from March 5-8, 1962 are more detailed. It followed a similar path as Irene and was considered the worst winter storm ever recorded. This time I was the mother, with three children under seven. We were living in a rental house on a farm in Lambertville, NJ, close to the Delaware River and some fifty miles from the Jersey shore. My husband Bill was in India on a State Department-sponsored theatrical tour, and I felt very much alone. The gale force winds whipped around my little house most of the day and through the night, and at some point the driving rain changed to heavy wet snow. I laid awake for part of the night listening for the sound of tree branches crashing to the ground. I was worried about the cat—she had not come in for the night as she usually did.
Radio newscasters referred to the storm as hurricane-like. It had formed in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida and moved up the coast packing gale force winds. It arrived on the Jersey shore on a moonless night when the presence of a “Perigian spring tide” (related to the new moon) caused the storm surge to occur on five successive high tides. Beach erosion, flooding, damage to roads, bridges, buildings and boardwalks were reported on the radio, but the storm was so unusual, not much forecasting or advice was forthcoming.
When we wakened the winds were not as strong, and the sky was beginning to clear. We all bundled up and went out to have a look. There was no damage to the house, but lots of tree limbs and branches to clean up once the snow melted. The cat never returned, nor did we find her body; I wondered if she had been killed by one of the trees that fell in the nearby woods.
In September 2002, a year before Bill died, we had a family vacation on Ocrocoke Island. There were seven of us, including my daughter-in-law’s mother Dorothy. She and Bill were both frail and suffering from various ailments. It was gray and windy when we arrived, and we were warned to park the cars on high ground because Tropical Storm Gustav was expected to come ashore the next day. We found the candles and flashlights provided in the rental house and laid in sufficient food. Two cars were parked several blocks away on higher ground, and one left on the highest place in the yard. The next day the storm came, raged, blew and pounded the island with rain. It was frightening in its immediacy, as trees dipped and bent right outside the windows. Fortunately no trees fell nearby.
The next morning we found we were completed surrounded by a moat of water, effectively marooning both the house and the parked car. As we watched a snake swim slowly by in the water that lapped the edge of the porch, Bill wisely declared that he wasn’t going anywhere until he could walk on dry land, adding, “Gustav is as close as I ever want to be to a hurricane.”
In the aftermath of Irene, the chattering classes have been speculating about whether the evacuations and other precautions were necessary. Hurricane specialists agree that the science of forecasting the track of a hurricane is far better than the science of predicting the intensity. Evacuations may have inconvenienced thousands but arguably they also kept the casualties low. We are still learning the extent of the damage to infrastructure from flooding, but the storm has shown us how vulnerable much of it is. The awesome power of nature confronts us in these monster storms and the toll on the people in their wake is always devastating.
My memories of the storms I have experienced are infused with the strong emotions that were evoked at the time; I already know that I would pack up and evacuate if so advised even as I hoped for the best.