Too Much of a Good Thing
Hurricanes were my second greatest passion growing up on Cape Cod. This was fortunate because Massachusetts has a greater chance of getting hit by a major storm than any other state. This is because Cape Cod juts far out into the Atlantic where it can get hit by both hurricanes in the summer and Northeasters in winter. This tends to keep New Englanders honest. We remember our storms.
My first recollection of a hurricane came in 1954. Cape Cod had not experienced a major hurricane since the great hurricane of 1938. Hurricane tracking was not very sophisticated then so many people were not even aware that hurricane Carol had accelerated unexpectedly after brushing past Cape Hatteras. She slammed into Cape Cod shortly after high tide on August 31st.
My family was huddled in our house at the head of Pleasant Bay. We took turns standing at the window peering through binoculars. Our neighbors had spent the night camping on nearby Sampson’s Island. It was too risky to try to rescue them by boat, but nobody had seen evidence of them all morning long.
Suddenly we heard the rumble of a heavy truck. It couldn’t reach us, storm waves had surged over the roadway. We were sitting on an island. We donned rain slickers and ran outside. An army duck had been dispatched from the nearby military base. We watched as the amphibious vehicle lurched down our driveway then splashed into the roiling waters. We lost sight of the duck as it bucked and plunged in the mass of seething white caps. Half an hour later we spotted the duck returning, our bedraggled neighbors were wrapped in blankets, but still alive.
Hurricane Carol went on to devast much of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Her hundred mile an hour winds blew the steeple off Boston’s Old North Church and flooded Providence Rhode Island under twelve feet of water. Four thousand homes, thirty-five hundred automobiles and over three thousand boats were lost. Carol caused $6.4 billion dollars worth of damage in today’s dollars.
We were still cleaning up after Hurricane Carol when Edna swooped down on us on September 11th. This time people were better prepared. Nobody tried to spend the night on any islands. Our lights went out again, but this time we had candles and batteries for our shortwave radio. We listened intently to the broadcasts as the wind slashed the trees outside. Through the windows we could just see scraggly pines bent over sideways by the approaching storm.
Then something strange happened. Just as Edna passed over Nantucket, her eye split in two. The announcer reported that one of the eyes was over Chatham, traveling north up Pleasant Bay. We rushed to the window. Sure enough, we could just make out a small spot of sunlight almost lost amidst the curtains of gray wind and blowing waves.
Suddenly everything went silent. The eye had moved directly over our house. We raced outside to discover a beautiful summer day. The trees now stood upright dripping large crystalline drops of sunlit rain. The light had a warm yellowish glow and the air had an unnaturally hot almost tropical feel. I seem to remember the smell of ozone caused by lightning, but perhaps I am mistaken. We spotted the tracker plane flying slowly against the clear blue sky. The airforce had started tracking hurricanes shortly after World War II. The next advance would be weather satellites introduced in the late Fifties.
We didn’t have long to enjoy the spectacle. The far side of the eyewall was fast approaching. The trees, which had been blown over to the west were now slapped back down sideways to the east. We were just able to scamper back inside before the wall of water enveloped us once again.
It is fascinating how your perspective changes with age. I had spent most of my youth hoping for the next hurricane. When hurricane Bob hit in 1991, I was married with two children and owned a house and car. There would be no foolhardy racing outside to observe meteorological phenomenon.
No significant hurricanes had hit Cape Cod since 1955. I had forgotten how to prepare for hurricanes in the intervening years. We spent most of our time doing everything wrong. I filled up the bathtub and buckets with water, forgetting that we no longer had a private well. Gravity from Woods Hole’s water tower would ensure that we still had water even if the electricity went out. I spent hours putting tape on the windows. Nobody’s windows were blown out by the category 2 storm.
Bob struck in the afternoon and we spent an hour in total darkness listening to huge oak trees crash down around the house. I heard one land on the car I had neglected to put in the garage. How was I supposed to know not to leave a car under an oak tree? We had grown up with supple pines!
The following day dawned warm and beautiful. The roads were covered with a carpet of bright green leaves the storm had stripped from the trees. The air held the geosmine odor of new mown hay. Groups of people walked awestruck through the carnage. The only house that still had lights was owned by a fisherman who had the foresight to move his boat’s generator into the basement.
A mini- tornado had cut a swath of destruction through the woods beside our house. The separated fibers of the oak trees, showed how the giant trees had been twisted apart as the tornadoes touched down and raced through. I would later discover that the twisted fibers made particularly good firewood. For several nights following the storm the stumps of the downed trees glowed with a sepulchral bioluminescence. The hurricane had exposed foxfire embedded within their rotting trunks.
Yellow jackets blamed humans for the destruction. Whenever you stepped outside they would make a beeline for your face. My daughter was stung three times. More people were admitted to the Falmouth Hospital than ever before. Almost all of the admittances were for yellow jacket stings.
For the first few days after the storm, our neighborhood had the atmosphere of a summer camp. Nobody could use their computers so we saw pasty white scientists we hadn’t seen in years. Everyone was outside cleaning up their yards and chopping wood. I was able to salt away three years worth of prime oak firewood. But after ten days without hot food, electricity or showers, the situation lost its charm. The leaves on the remaining trees now hung brown and dead and great piles of bush lined the streets. Trash was not being collected so the smell of rotting food was everywhere.
But a few weeks after the storm I was on Cuttyhunk Island and noticed new green leaves sprouting on apple trees. This was curious for September. Later forsythia and chestnut trees started to bloom. It was almost autumn but it looked like spring. Nature was fighting back.
It is instructive to compare these three storms. The 1938 hurricane was a category 3 storm that killed 700 people and caused six million dollars worth of damage. Hurricane Carol was a category 3 storm that killed 100 but caused five hundred million dollars worth of damage. Hurricane Bob was a category 2 hurricane that only killed six people but caused $1.5 Billion dollars in damages. You can see from these figures that through better forecasting and measures like evacuations we have become better at saving lives. But hurricanes have become more costly because there are so many new houses on the coast. It is estimated that if the 1938 hurricane occurred today, it would cause thirty-five billion dollars in damages, almost half the damages caused by Katrina in New Orleans.
There are another interesting parallels. The 1954 and 1955 hurricane seasons were superficially similar to the 2004 and 2005 seasons. But why had there been so many intense hurricanes in the 1950’s then virtually none until 1992? Were the storms of the 1950’s just an artifact my nostalgic memory, or had something really changed?
Actually several things have changed. In the mid-1980’s a hurricane researcher at Colorado State discovered that there was a correlation between weather patterns in northern Africa and the frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic. William Gray showed that when the Sahara Desert is expanding and the Sahel region is hot and dry, few major storms strike the East Coast of the United States.
This pattern occurred from 1966 to 1992 when only three hurricanes greater than category 3 struck the East Coast of the United States. From 1944 to 1960 when the Sahel was wet and stormy there had been 15 major Atlantic hurricanes. They had peaked on Cape Cod in 1954 with hurricanes Carol, Edna and Hazel and in 1955 with hurricanes Connie and Diane.
Now researchers have discovered that there appears to be a further correlation with the El Nino — La Nina cycle in the Pacific and atmospheric and deep sea current changes in the Atlantic. When the Pacific surface waters are cool it changes the high altitude jet stream that delivers more stormy weather to the Sahel creating hurricanes that strike the United States. We are presently in this era of more frequent hurricanes. It is expected to last for 35 to 50 years. This will make storms like Katrina an expected event.
But what about global warming? Except for a few errant academics under contract to backward energy companies, most scientists agree that the world is getting warmer. But even if you don’t believe that global warming is caused by human activity it is difficult to deny that temperatures have risen dramatically in the past 50 years. Global warming has particularly affected the oceans’ surface water temperatures. As we saw with Katrina, surface water temperatures have to be over 80 degrees fahrenheit and over 200 feet deep to spawn hurricanes. Now we have these conditions for several months off Africa where hurricanes are born and in the Gulf of Mexico where they can kick start a run-of-the-mill category 2 hurricane into a devastating monster like Katrina.
In 2005, Kerry Emmanuel an atmospheric scientist at MIT showed that these higher ocean temperatures have led to an increase in more intense hurricanes. The 2005 season seemed to bear out both these scientists. It included the most destructive hurricane on record, Katrina, and the strongest hurricane to ever hit the American coast, Wilma. It even included Catarina, the first hurricane ever reported south of the equator in the Atlantic Ocean. It also included the most storms in a single season, requiring meteorologists to go through both the Roman and the Greek alphabets to come up with enough names for all the hurricanes. Whether natural cycles or global warming are the prime force, it is clear that we have entered an era of more frequent and more powerful hurricanes. If you believe in self-limiting natural cycles it may last for 35 to 50 years. If you believe it is caused by global warming it may last far longer.
Of all the things scientists have discovered about global warming, this increase in the destructiveness of hurricanes is the most immediately alarming. Increasing carbon dioxide, melting ice caps and sea level rise might affect us in the future, but more powerful hurricanes can affect us next year.
As we saw with Katrina, it is storm surges that cause the worst hurricane damage. The primary cause of storm surge is the low barometric pressure at the center of a storm. This actually raises the water under a hurricane so it may be several feet higher than the surrounding ocean. This lens of raised water may be several miles in diameter. It is enhanced by winds and waves that are stronger on the right side of hurricane because they include the forward speed of the traveling storm. So people on land experience a storm surge as a sustained high tide with waves rather than a single surge of water as the term implies.
It stands to reason that if we have more powerful storms in the future, they will also pack higher storm surges. Twenty foot surges may be the norm rather than the exception. But this time when hurricanes and storm surges come ashore, the sea level will also be higher. If the 1938 hurricane hit today, the ocean level would be about 7 inches higher than in 1938. If hurricane Carol hit today, the ocean would be about 6 inches higher than in 1954. Six inches might not seem like a lot but it means that storm surges will flood several miles further inland and barrier islands will roll over faster and migrate further toward the mainland. If the Greenland cap collapses precipitously as many experts fear sea level and storm surges will be several feet higher in just a few decades.
Add to all this, the fact that there has been a building boom along the coasts and you have the ingredients for the disaster that devastated Florida and the Gulf of Mexico in 2004 and 2005. As the old ecologist of the Okeefenokee swamp Pogo once intoned, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” With these wise words in mind, let’s return to the Gulf of Mexico to learn how to live with this new reality.
Except From “Just Seconds From the Ocean, Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina.” Available at bookstores and through the Coastlines Project and at UPNE.com.