Well, the East Coast was just treated to Irene, who rained and blew and left a mess in her wake. The storm came straight up the coast, traversing Bos-Wash, one of the country’s most heavily populated areas. I’m extremely glad I wasn’t in the Carolinas, New York or New England, which seem to have had the worst of it.
Today, you always know a storm is coming. You even witness its gestation, here in the age of overkill. A storm isn’t really “weather” anymore. It’s a media event, a “windfall,” if you like. Every TV meteorologist hams it up, staggering about, microphone in hand, up to their knees in surf. I fully expect to lose one of them soon, to a wave or an airborne street sign.
In 1954 I was nine. We lived in a rural area, just outside Skaneateles, New York. When Hurricane Hazel came to visit, we had two local TV channels that came in reliably, so we knew to expect wind and rain that night. Nothing out of the ordinary was predicted. My parents had a date with friends to go out to dance and hear jazz in nearby Syracuse. They weren’t “afraid of a little wind.” Besides, our house was named “Windswept.” After two years in residence, we were used to hunkering down during upstate gales.
Eleanor, fourteen, was duly brought from a nearby farm to stay with me. My parents left; she and I watched TV together. Outside, it began to rain. There were big gusts, but we weren’t concerned when I went to bed. After all, no one had issued any kind of warning. My room was on the northwest corner of the house. Outside one window was an enormous poplar tree. Tonight it heaved and creaked like a ship at sea. There was a steady stream of cold boring through the leaky windows, so I hurried under the covers.
I couldn’t go to sleep, though. This wind was louder than ever, and the tree began to groan, a noise I’d never heard a tree make before. It was frightening, because I was always keenly aware of the great presence which stood so close against my window. When the electricity went out, I got up and used a flashlight to go downstairs. Eleanor was keeping a brave face, but it was clear she was worried. She’d called her parents a little earlier and they’d counseled her to sit tight. Back on the farm, they had their own problems. They expected her to handle the situation.
My parents had set out candles, a kerosene lamp, and filled jugs with water before leaving. (Power outages were not unusual.) We had flashlights and the rest in hand when things began thudding against the siding. We hurried to sit on the central staircase. By closing doors, here we were away from all windows.
The storm shrieked. The house shuddered at each gust. The wind developed a deep note, each blast ending in a throaty rumbling growl which vibrated the floorboards under my feet. I began to imagine an enormous restless predator, prowling and snuffling around, figuring out how to get inside. Then, with a huge crash and shatter, it did.
Wind screamed and tore at us as we crept downstairs to see what had happened. Debris stung. A huge, leafy branch lay on the living room floor surrounded by glittering glass. It had taken out one window. Mom’s white curtains streamed horizontally. There was nothing to do but retreat up the stairs and wait for my parents, who were having a series of adventures with live wires, fallen trees, etc. getting home. As soon as they arrived, my dad closed the outside shutters and then took Eleanor home. He said he saw stars on his return, almost as if we were beneath the eye.
Our power was out for days. We pumped water by hand from the well and ate out of cans, using our camp stove. The beautiful town, when we finally saw it, was a ruin. Scores of ancient maples and elms had come down in whole or part, blocking streets and crushing homes. Sustained winds of 90 mph were recorded at the head of the lake, far higher than anyone had expected.
So much of this story would not happen today. Eleanor’s parents and mine would probably not be considered “responsible,” but we kids learned some valuable lessons about “keep calm and carry on.” Even if I do get exhausted by today’s weather hype, I have to admit it’s probably a safer world than back then, when Hurricane Hazel, even in her last throes, could spring such a nasty surprise on a small upstate town.