As Hurricane Irene takes aim at the East Coast, with New York or New England possibly in its sights, I’m thinking back on the time that I witnessed the great 1635 hurricane that hit the Jamestown settlement and Massachusetts Bay Colony. Also when I saw the 1938 "Long Island Express" that wiped out much of the New York shoreline. And a few more of the greatest historical hurricanes ever to strike the Northeast coast.
No, I haven't found a time machine or the Fountain of Youth. But I have seen a sample of marsh mud taken by Jeff Donnelly, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, who studies historical hurricanes.
In 2007, I was part of a group of ocean science journalism fellows who watched in rapt attention as Donnelly opened a long cylinder of mud for us in his office, showing how the silt is deposited slowly over time in discernible layers -- just like colored layers of rock in the Grand Canyon.
If you know how to read the layers of mud, as Donnelly does, you can read the history of the marsh, and of the beach in front of it.
Lighter tan stripes running through the dark mud, which look like a layer of mocha icing in a rich chocolate cake, indicate that large quantities of sand from the beach washed over the tall dunes and settled on top of the marsh. These overwashes are usually the result of a major storm -- either a powerful 'Noreaster or hurricane.
By dating the marsh layers and matching them up with historical records, Donnelly can line up some of the thin sand layers with specific recorded events. That's how he was able to correspond one light stripe with the 1635 storm, and another with the 1938 hurricane. The samples he's taken from all over New England indicate that the Great Colonial Hurricane was probably a one-in-400-years event, creating more than 20 feet of storm surge along parts of Cape Cod.
I find it instructive to think back on these old storms when watching Irene’s cone of uncertainty advance slowly north on my computer screen. As a newspaper reporter in the Carolinas, I always carried a copy of Jay Barnes’ book North Carolina Hurricane History when heading toward Wilmington or the Outer Banks to cover the latest approaching storm. I knew that wherever it hit, I could thumb through the index and find other storms that had struck the same place before.
None of which is to say that we shouldn’t take Irene very seriously. Those historical storms are remembered precisely because they did major damage, after all. But there’s always this strange sense of hurricane amnesia that sets in after storms recede and the sun starts shining again (and it will: the day after a hurricane is typically the most beautiful of the year -- the better for Mother Nature to show off the damage she caused).
We forget that our history is full of extreme weather events, and that we need to build our homes and communities and cities with that reality in mind. (It doesn’t help that the U.S. East Coast experienced an unusual 30-year lull in hurricane activity that only ended in the mid-1990s, so many of us who grew up during that period think of hurricanes as rarer than they are historically.) Climate change, which is predicted to increase the likelihood of damaging storms, floods, and droughts -- and in fact, all evidence indicates, already has -- only makes preparedness all the more important.
I live in New Jersey now, and work in Manhattan, but I’m still every bit as vulnerable as I was when living in the Carolinas. My wife and I have been remiss about developing a good family emergency plan since we moved to the Garden State last year. Irene, whatever the path it eventually takes, is a reminder -- for our family, at least -- not to be complacent. Hopefully it can serve as that for our cities and communities, as well.
After all, if history is any guide, there will be more sandy streaks in that New England mud for future Jeff Donnellys to dig up someday.
Image: Hurricane Irene from space via NASA