A Hurricane is Coming

By Sam Low

September 16, 2003

Sunday morning at ten – the air is vapid and the sea is flat off the Steamboat Pier in Oak Bluffs. It’s hot and muggy. It feels like something has sucked the energy from the atmosphere. Something big. I’m aware of Isabel, of course, having followed its festering ball of wind on the internet for the past week. She’s tracking toward us – a category five storm – with winds of 160 miles an hour. So the weather on Sunday feels full of threat. My skiff, at the pier in Harthaven, seems vulnerable. The trees around my house now appear immense and powerful in their latent energy. If they fall, well… A hurricane is coming and that awareness changes everything.

My first memory of the Vineyard is the 1944 hurricane when many relatives came to our house, deep in the woods, for refuge. I was two years old. I remember that hurricane because my parents gave me a flashlight for amusement. I shined it on the faces of our guests and was amazed at the emotion there – the first time I saw adults display fear.

In 1954, when I was twelve, it was hurricane Carol. My father and his friends set anchors deep in the muck of our harbor and trailed ropes to their boats to hold them off the piers. All lines were doubled. Everything that moved was stored indoors. Preparations continued even as the storm spread its deadly fingers across the island. The men worked on docks now covered with water and gusts tugged at their southwesters. Here’s my most vivid memory. My father and I are carrying a Burt skiff to shelter, upside down. Suddenly a gust plucks the boat from our hands and hurls it across the road – some forty feet.

In 1960, Donna Called. My grandparent’s house faced the beach. We watched the approaching storm from a glassed in porch that began to shiver in the mounting wind. We retreated and closed the doors to the porch, pushing the dining room table against them. Minutes later the porch was disassembled into its component parts and scattered across the lawn.

After one of these storms, we found an uncle’s boat impaled on a piling at its pier. The tide had risen six feet and the anchor line keeping it off the pier had snapped. It was a deep but not a mortal wound. I think Erford Burt dealt with it.

A hurricane is a grand expression of nature’s primal force and it focuses us on a latent drama all around, heretofore hidden. The skins of our homes now seem fragile. The ocean contains a veiled threat. The beach seems tender and insubstantial. The songbirds in the bushes – what will become of them? We welcome this drama with dread. Anticipating a hurricane puts us in our place in nature’s scheme and that may be the only thing about a hurricane that we can welcome.

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