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The No-Name Storm: Surviving a Disaster

by Elizabeth Bernier

(The "No-Name" storm of October 30, 1991 was the most powerful northeaster ever recorded, a class 5-extreme-according to University of Virginia scientists who have devised the new classification system for ranking such storms. The storm's damage exceeded that of the Blizzard of ‘78 as well as the $680 million damage of Hurricane Bob in August of 1991. 4300 homes were damaged or destroyed (290 in Massachusetts). In Scituate alone, the Civil Defense Director estimated the damage at $100 million.

 

I am one of the survivors of the second New England hurricane of 1991, the Coastal storm of October 30, labeled the "No Name Storm,” that devastated the East Coast of the US from Maine to New Jersey.* I was renting a house on the ocean, literally a few feet from the water. I had been packed up and readied for a move back to my own home, a mile inland. My moving date was delayed because the tenants living in the house I owned were also delayed in moving out.

The storm had been building for a couple of days. On Monday, October 28, I recall hearing sirens as I was driving out of my street to go to work. Police and fire trucks screamed down Gannett Road in front of me and came to a halt at the water's edge. The police and firemen then appeared to look helplessly out to sea, watching a sailboat that seemed ready to founder onto the rocks off Minot Ledge, a half mile off shore. The sea was very stormy that morning.

On Tuesday, I took note of the solid whiteness of the water from the shoreline, extending eastward, out to the horizon and as far as I could see, up and down the coastline. I had never seen anything like it before; no hint of darker water between waves to separate the foam of the caps. As far as the eye could see, the scene was a solid sheet of white caps. That scene continues to puzzle me.

(Later, the storm would be re-named The Perfect Storm after the book of that title by Sebastian Junger.)

Tuesday night when I returned home from work, I turned on my all-weather radio to check on the storm's progress. It was reported that high tide on Wednesday would be at 4:15 a.m. and then again at 4:30 p.m. and that two storm systems were converging to create a sizeable high tide with potential flooding in low-lying areas. A storm out of Canada was coming south and east into New England while the tail end of the latest hurricane had moved out to sea but was joining in the Canadian air coming from the northeast.

Having heard that report, I was somewhat prepared for what happened during the night. Ordinarily, a storm at sea that creates large surf shakes the house when high tide pounds the seawall. I had quickly become accustomed to this phenomena within a month of living there. However, I was suddenly and violently awakened at 2:00 a.m. by crashing waves on the seawall, rocking the house with such fury I thought it was coming off its foundation. I flew out of my bed, which was located on the third floor, and ran down to the second floor living room to assess the danger. I decided to get ready in the event I would need to leave quickly. I dressed accordingly, and put my sleeping bag on the living room couch, my purse near the stairs leading to the first floor door where my car was parked. I tried in vain to sleep but ended up sitting in my rocking chair watching the fury of the tide coming in for the next two to three hours.

I recall only a moment of fear during that time. When my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I could perceive an enormous wave approaching from about half way out on the horizon. The thought of a tidal wave flashed through my mind and I wondered if this could be one! Slowly, I saw the same size wave repeated and decided it couldn't be tidal — just extremely high surf rolling in, crashing over the seawall. I watched as the waves traveled over the seawall, crashing between my house and the one next door — water rolling down the concrete stairs that led from the concrete apron to the back yard and flooding the street. I saw my son's ladder being swept by the water to the neighbor's lawn across the road. The street was filled with water, white froth and debris.

At this point I remember noting that someone was at the house next door, as I could see TV lights in an upstairs bedroom and a car parked in the driveway. Normally, houses on both sides are deserted after Labor Day.

On Wednesdays I work in my home doing therapy with clients. My first appointment was at 9:00 a.m. and I began to work as if this day were like any other. In the back of my mind I had ascertained that because I had sat through the 4:15 a.m. tide when it was dark, the daylight of the 4:30 p.m. tide would be less scary. Low tide was about 10:00 a.m. and I remember noticing then that the sea had receded very little, if at all. Water was still at the seawall where normally low tide would reveal 100 yards of sandy beach beyond the seawall.

About noon time, as I was sitting with a client in the first floor room I used for an office, there was a rushing sound coming from just outside the room. Although we were startled, I knew what it was, having watched and listened to it during the night, and I laughingly said "oh, it's only the tide coming in!" I took her to the window. The scene was a torrent of water rushing down the stairs outside our door and pouring out onto the yard and street beyond.

At 2:00 p.m. I finished with my last client and went upstairs to the main floor to get some lunch. I had one remaining appointment at 6:30 p.m. By this time the white surf had developed a yellow tinge and the froth was covering the entire front window wall of the house which was made of sliding glass doors and floor-to-ceiling glass panels. With each wave hitting the seawall, the white foam slapped against the windows, completely covering the view from top to bottom and side to side. Then, very slowly, the froth would slide down the windows to reveal the sea again until, in a few seconds, the next wave would hit and the froth would slap the windows, obliterating the view. It seemed to be the consistency of shaving cream, very thick and very slow to slide down the window glass.

I returned two telephone calls that had come in on my answering machine while I was meeting with clients. I told both people of the action of the sea that I was witnessing outside my home. Incredibly, I had no sense of alarm, no hint of the danger advancing on me. I have since learned the waves were 35 feet high, explaining why I couldn't see any dark water troughs between white caps! I remember now making another call to a year round neighbor to check out her perceptions of the situation. I got an answering machine.

As I prepared a salad for lunch, I noted the increasing depth of the water flooding the street. Because there were still two hours left before the next high tide I decided the water would probably not recede in time for my 6:30 p.m. client to get into the street. I decided to cancel that appointment. I picked up the telephone — but the line was dead. I went downstairs to the office to try another phone line. The second line worked and I placed the call. As I explained to the client why I had to cancel, the sea suddenly came flooding in the back door to the room where I was standing. Simultaneously, I heard weird noises and instantly knew (and told the client), "I've got to get out of here!" The sounds I heard were a booming noise to my right and sharper crashing noise to my left.

Slamming the phone down, I ran up the stairs, grabbed my jacket and purse. The water was too deep to get my car out of the street. I ran back down to the phone and called the police, asking them to come and get me. They said they would try. Feeling the immediacy of the situation, I decided to wait outside. I left the house through the garage as the crashing noises had been near the main door and I didn't want to get hit by flying timbers. When I saw for the first time what the situation looked like from outside, I jumped into the back seat of my car for safety to await the police.

In a matter of seconds, I knew it wasn't safe even there. Quickly, I left the car and began to make my way out of the street towards higher ground. The icy water was rushing in torrents from my right, pouring over the seawall, coming between each house, sweeping toward and past me. Moving against the powerful current, I held onto picket fence posts as I made my way very carefully. I was very conscious of not wanting to fall and placed my feet deliberately to remain sure-footed. The water in some areas was up to mid-thigh, in others about mid-calf. Although I have no recall of the winds, I later learned that they were ferocious, gusting to 70 and 80 mph My concentration must have been so focused on getting through the water without falling, that I couldn't afford to notice the wind. That seems incredible to me now.

At some point I crossed the street, heading away from the ocean, in hopes that the water was shallower on the other side. Some teenage boys were behind me as I started out of the street. Initially they were laughing and making jokes. However, before too many minutes had passed their tone turned serious as they realized the rapidly escalating danger in the situation. From the direction I was heading, a truck came toward me. As it came alongside of me, it turned around and I thought the driver was going to pick me up. When the truck turned however, I remember seeing that the cab was filled with what looked like a generator. The driver then turned back away from the rapidly flooding street.

As I approached what seemed to be even deeper water, I could see higher ground up ahead. I had to cross a driveway that pitched downward from the street toward the pond behind the houses. Thinking the water would be shallow, the teenage boys made their way down to the end of the driveway. As I watched them, I could tell the water got deeper at the end of the driveway so I started to cross about mid-point. Even here, the water came close to my hips. A man came out of the house and yelled "I guess I better get out of here!" He followed me, as did the boys.

Gradually, the ground began to rise and water became shallower. I knew then that I was safe. I kept walking toward the end of the street looking for a phone to call the police to report my safety.

Finally, I found a house with someone home and used the phone. The police told me they had attempted to get in to help me in a 4-wheel drive vehicle but were unable to make it through the water. I then called friends and asked them to pick me up. We agreed to meet a few short blocks away at a major intersection back from the ocean. I had to make my way through backyards to get to dry ground as the ocean was pouring up the adjacent street.

Waiting for my friends, I saw cars filling the two main streets creating a traffic jam at the intersection. I recall wanting to shout to the drivers, "No! No! Don't go down there to look — you don't know how dangerous it is!!" As a police cruiser arrived and the policeman began to direct traffic away from the street, I started to become aware of just how wet and cold I was as I waited for my ride.

When my friends arrived, we drove a few blocks north and up a hill to check on property they owned and rented in the neighborhood. As one friend checked the house, the other friend and I walked through backyards to see the ocean. Looking down the coast, I could see my house, the waves crashing against it. We left there and drove south on a road parallel to my street.

As we approached the back side of the pond, I asked them to park so I could look across and check once again on what was happening to my house. I watched as a huge wave hit and suddenly my house disappeared! All I could see was water crashing over where the house should have been. Quickly, the water receded and I saw the house was still standing. Suddenly, it was gone again as the next wave hit, obliterating it from view. I felt frozen with terror. I watched as wave after wave engulfed the house that I had been in less than an hour ago. There was yet an hour to go before the height of the tide. I couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe that I had been in that house just minutes before with no thought of leaving, no awareness of the growing danger. That scene stays in my mind and I still feel the tears surface in me when I tell about it. The terror and the disbelief still seize me. Later, I would identify with the Biblical story of Lot's wife. I understood then that she had been immobilized with terror when she looked back — having been driven from, yet trying to stay connected with, her home, only to witness its destruction and that of her community.

My friends took me to their home where I exchanged my cold, wet clothing for a warm robe and sat before the wood stove feeling numb. As the time of high tide approached I was filled with a passionate desire to know what was happening at the coast. I felt glued to the TV watching for every news account I could find. I read every newspaper story I could find, then and since.

The desire to know what happened has not abated. I ask other survivors to tell me their stories. I particularly want to know the time sequence in their stories. I cling to the insights and explanations offered to me by the Storm Aid outreach worker whose skill and compassion have been significant instruments of healing for me. I still struggle to fathom what seems beyond my grasp ... beyond my ability to comprehend. The sudden and violent nature of this life-threatening disaster that destroyed most of my household belongings (accumulated over 30 years) and partially destroyed the home I was living in, will remain incomprehensible to me. My struggle to know and understand what happened represents a very basic human need to try to control for, as much as is possible, what is ultimately uncontrollable.

Thursday morning, the day after the storm, one of my friends took me back to my home to see what had happened. We were unable to get into the street by car. The scene reminded me of pictures of Desert Storm damage to Iraq and Kuwait. Piles of rocks, broken slabs of concrete, piles of sand, broken furniture, timbers, automobiles; in short, rubble blocked the street. We climbed over and around, down the road to my house. At one point, a woman with a professional camera on her shoulder came climbing out, passing us. Her face reflected the horror she had seen. I asked "What is it?" She shook her head and said "It's all gone — all gone!" My heart sank. We approached my house and I saw my car up on the lawn between the garage and the street. It had been swept from it's place in the driveway. The entrance door to the house was blown into the hallway and, as I approached I could see the chaos within.

I climbed up to the front of the house via my neighbor's concrete ramp, which was located near the seawall but had somehow remained intact . What I saw now looked exactly like a bombed out city in war- time. Gaping black holes across the whole front of my house on both stories where sliding glass doors and windows had been, porches gone, the balcony ripped off and hanging at a bizarre angle outside my bedroom. The entire concrete apron between the house and seawall ripped out exposing deep craters filled with rocks and debris. My neighbor's house — the entire front one third completely ripped out — the same or worse scene repeated, as I looked down the coast and then behind me as I turned to look in the other direction — the same devastation. I didn't want to see anymore; but I knew I had to go inside.

We entered the house through the gaping holes to find everything smashed. The powerful, raging sea, driven by hurricane force winds had smashed into, broken open and at places, driven through my home, leaving piled up in the far corners the rubble of broken furniture, seaweed, glass, sand, books, tapes, food, papers, dishes, baby pictures (8 mm films), family antiques, jewelry, bedding, records, lamps, appliances, music, clothing, plants .... everything I owned! The sea took some of it out the side doors into the street and beyond to the fenced edge of the pond. It took other things out with the receding tide, never to be found. I felt stunned. Later, I would feel ravaged.

Page Two of The No Name Storm>>

 

©2007 Elizabeth Bernier for Seniorwomen.com
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