Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

Distress Signal: Hurricane Sandy's Take-Away Message

Property damage along the New Jersey coast caused by Hurricane Sandy. | Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Erik Swanson/U.S. Coast Guard via Getty Images)

I never meant to be so predictive. In a column I wrote this summer about the extraordinary vulnerability of the Jersey Shore to the erosive force of hurricanes, a landscape that has been gouged, pummeled, and drowned by one swirling storm after another, I suggested it was so vulnerable because of Nature (Mother) and nature (human). Two months later, Hurricane Sandy underscored that claim.

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The region's legendary beach communities, notably Cape May, have been constructed on the least stable soil -- or in their case, sand -- a medium that by definition shifts, erodes, and migrates in response to tidal pressures. Hurricanes and tropical storms, even a solid nor'easter, accelerate these changes, particularly when their cyclonic force smacks into the built environment.

That's when things get ugly. And dangerous. The danger is a direct consequence of our hunger to stake out beachfront property, fill in tidal wetlands, dredge harbors and inlets, and flatten barrier sand dunes, all tied to our hardscape hubris, our touching faith that concrete, boulder, asphalt, and wood will make our homes, restaurants, and hotels stable, impregnable, enduring.

People walk across Beach Ave. as flood waters from Hurricane Sandy rush in on October 29 in Cape May, New Jersey. | Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This confidence encourages a psychological comfort that is anything but comforting: on Sunday, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on southern New Jersey, police and firefighters went door-to-door pleading with people to evacuate. Gov. Chris Christie could not have been more blunt: "Don't be stupid."

Too many were, and chose to stay behind because, as one of them said after a harrowing rescue from his flooded home: "This is crazy; it's never happened before."

Actually, it has occurred before, and often, up and down the eastern seaboard, time and time again. Yet the extraordinary human capacity to deny this tempest-tossed past somehow trumps our ability to act in our self-defense. Apparently we'd rather put ourselves (and others) in harm's way than admit that world we have constructed along this fragile and malleable coast, from Miami to Maine, is as durable as a sandcastle.

Some of this odd behavior surely is a failure of imagination and memory, which might be countered by a more persistent and willful telling of stories about such momentous events. Might it help to spin an endless thread of remembrance so as to knit together past and present, to stop time as a way to remind us how to live in this time, in this place?

Hurricane Bob approaches the East Coast in 1991. | Photo: U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Such thoughts flickered through my mind 21 years ago as Hurricane Bob charged up the Atlantic, taking dead aim at New England. In mid-August my family and I had arrived on Martha's Vineyard Island, seven miles off Cape Cod, to visit my mother then living in a mid-century modern home perched on a sandy bluff overlooking Edgartown harbor; its board-and-batten siding and large plate-glass windows, ideal on a warm summer's day, were less so in the face of nature's fury.

Not that we were thinking such ominous thoughts as we motored down to the Cape from Boston, took a ferry across to the Vineyard, and another from Edgartown to Chappaquiddick Island, whose western shore helps frame the old whaling town's harbor. All was placid: the storm still lay well to the south; models of its path remained unpredictable.

Then the tropical depression intensified and took off like a shot; we could not get off the Vineyard before Bob's 100-mph winds and roiling tidal surge shut down access to the mainland. As day turned to night, as lightning flashed across an ink-black sky, we told stories to while away the hours; that's when our less-than-sleepy children learned about their father's first close encounter with a hurricane.

Not yet three when Carol smashed into the Vineyard in August 1954, I seemed to have spent most of that long day clinging to my mother; that was not the safest place to be. Hoping to give her children an unobstructed view of the storm's fury, for example, she took us to the upper story of our then-summer home, a colonial edifice located in Edgartown, on South Water Street (its name is not by happenstance), tentatively raising the skylight that gave access to the roof.

Flooding in downtown Edgartown after Hurricane Carol in 1954. | Photo: Courtesy Vineyard Gazette
Big mistake: when it sailed off into the roiling sky, I was clamped to Mom's hip. There I remained while a local handyman struggled to nail a tarpaulin over the gaping hole.

Then there was the eerie calm that afternoon as the "eye" passed over the island. Only my mother -- who grew up on the New England coast -- professed not to know this marked but a temporary lull; she promptly took us down the street to survey the damage. Of that there was plenty. Power lines lay draped over a forest of downed tree limbs and branches, a dangerous clutter through which we picked our way north to the red-brick library. An incredulous Alfred Hall, a local merchant, astonished at our naiveté, admonished my mother to get us back to safety. She did, just before the back end of Carol tore into the town with renewed ferocity.

Maybe those were not the most appropriate tales to tell Ben and Rebecca on the eve of their first hurricane, I realized after catching them sneak furtive glances at their grandmother. So I tried to assure them that Bob would give us a glancing blow at best. "Trust me," I urged. They smiled, warily. After all, the story they had just heard revealed me to be the kind of guy who happily went along for the ride.

They need not have been so skeptical. Bob acted as predicted, and we easily rode out its fierce winds. There were moments however when those shrieking gusts threatened to crack through the living room's expansive windows, but they stood firm, and through them we watched a bizarre incident unfold in the turbulent waters of the harbor below.

Tempestuous does not begin to capture the endless sweep of white-capped chop that rolled north from Katama Bay through Edgartown's Inner Harbor to pile onto the usually calm interior Chappaquiddick shoreline; a resounding drum of wet thunder. The churning bode ill for the many pleasure craft and yachts that had streamed into Edgartown in advance of the storm, hoping to find safe haven. They pitched, dunked, and rocked as if mere toys, and many either snapped their moorings or dislodged their anchors, to drift wherever wind and tide pushed them.

The Moxie at rest after Hurricane Bob in 1991. | Photo: Char Miller

One of those that broke loose was the Moxie, a 30-foot, white-hulled sloop whose owner had found refuge next door. He must have kept his boat under close surveillance, for the moment we saw it spring free, a figure sprinted down the bluff stairs, slopped across the submerged dock and then leaped into the raging foam. Somehow he struggled aboard the errant, yawing vessel; somehow he kept his feet and manipulated the rear anchor so that it finally caught, bringing the Moxie to rest on the windward side of another dock, some three hundred yards to the north.

By this time we had edged out of the house to track the sailor's progress, and, crouching in the lee of a pine, watched as he repositioned the anchors, and lashed down the helm. His triumph was brief: within seconds of his return to shore, a wave lifted the Moxie and dropped it on to the splintering wharf, where it remained, wedged in and battered.

The Moxie could be rehabbed. Not so the family of Ospreys inhabiting a platform affixed to a nearby telephone pole, erected to help regenerate the once-prevalent species; its populations had been in steep decline since the 1950s with the widespread use of DDT that compromised its reproductive capacities. The day before the storm, we had observed a set of indefatigable parents demonstrate the tricky dynamics of flight to two juveniles while constantly feeding their ravenous brood. This peaceful avian life came to halt with the first rush of a southerly gale: it swept away their nest, a seemingly sturdy tangle of brush and twigs. The next morning, after the winds had subsided, we spotted an immature Osprey perched on the empty platform, calling for parents that never came, a plaintive cry repeated from dawn to dusk. By week's end, the young hawk had vanished.

It was hard not to recall that wrenching moment of loss as Hurricane Sandy's monstrous waves slammed into the Vineyard's southern shore, its screaming winds sheared off roofs in upscale beach towns on Long Island, its floodwaters made Manhattan's homeless only more so, and its punitive energy punched through and swamped the Jersey Shore. All habitats are vulnerable.

The instinct will be to rebuild, repair, and regenerate, an understandable impulse to cover up and gloss over. That's the last thing that should happen. Leave some of Sandy's tattered remnants -- busted boardwalks, beached boats, eroded strand, the cracked and broken -- so that we have some palpable memorials, visible markers of its distressing legacy.

Maybe then we won't forget what to do the next time a hurricane howls over the horizon.

Parts of this article were first published by Char Miller in the Vineyard Gazette in 1995.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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