On the Boardwalk

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Hurricane Watch

June, too soon; July, stand by; August, look out you must; September, remember; October, all over.

I can’t remember who taught me this old Caribbean rhyme about the hurricane season. Probably my grandfather, who moved to Miami in the early 1930’s, and, until his death, meticulously tracked each year’s hurricanes. Listening to radio reports and using colored pencils, he’d plot their paths on a big map on the wall of his den. It was frightening, yet beautiful.

As I sit in my garden admiring the purple alliums and yellow roses and listening to the big carpenter bees eating my house, it seems too early to think about hurricanes. My father, however, reminded me recently that the season begins on June 1 and the experts predict an active 2006 season. They say this year’s storms will focus on the eastern seaboard, due to above normal water temperatures, lower wind shear, and weaker easterly trade winds.

You don’t hear much about hurricanes threatening the Delaware coast. Strong winter coastal storms called Nor’easters are the rascals that have caused the most damage to Rehoboth. The March 1962 Nor’easter, for example, was a 1,000 mile-wide storm with 80 mph winds that pummeled the Mid-Atlantic coast for three days. Forty foot waves crashed into Rehoboth, destroying the Boardwalk and beach-front businesses and homes. One of the ten worst storms in the United States in the 20th century, it killed 40 people, injured over 1,000, and caused hundreds of millions in property damage across six states.

A quick visit to the National Hurricane Center website reveals that Delaware has only been hit directly two times by hurricanes since 1851 (and never by what they call a major or Category 3+ storm). It has something to do with the Gulf Stream not meandering up along our coast until September and October and the jet stream over the mid-Atlantic tending to steer storms away. By comparison during the same time period, Maine has been hit six times, New York, twelve, North Carolina, 46, and Florida leads the nation with 110 direct strikes.

Twenty-nine recorded hurricanes, however, have passed within a 150 nautical mile radius of Rehoboth, including some real “rowdy ladies” — Hazel in ‘54, Connie in ’55, and Agnes in ’70. Gloria hit in 1985 with 78 mph winds and caused wide-spread beach erosion and damage to the Rehoboth boardwalk.

Remember Hurricane Floyd back in 1999? Floyd was the storm that was going to tear up the East Coast and possibly destroy the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida. “A storm of biblical proportions,” was how Dan Rather described it on the CBS Evening News. It bypassed Florida and then weakened substantially by landfall between North Carolina’s Outer Banks and Norfolk, Virginia. It then headed north over Sussex County and the National Weather Service issued a hurricane warning, predicting 25 foot waves, a 9-foot tidal surge, sustained winds of up to 75 mph, and downed trees and power lines. I wandered around on the Boardwalk in my yellow slicker and flip flops during the worst of Floyd. Nothing much happened. The cute college boys at Thrashers stayed open through most of it, serving hot French fries to all us hurricane watchers. We never even lost power.

Hurricane Isabel flooded the Chesapeake Bay region in 2003. In 2004, we had Charley, Ivan, and Jeanne. My 90 year old grandmother called during one of them to make sure I had vodka, flashlights, and a roasted chicken. A native Floridian, she knows how to prepare for a hurricane.

I know some of you are thinking it’s crass to even remotely romanticize hurricanes. I certainly mean no disrespect to those who have suffered from them. But, I can’t help it. My family is somewhat obsessed with them, and I grew up listening to all their stories, including the one where Hurricane Donna chased me across the state of Florida in the late summer of 1960. While I was in my mother’s womb, I should add. The way my grandmother tells it, the storm was careening towards Miami, so she packed up my pregnant mother (and me) and drove us 9 hours north, up to their little concrete bungalow on Alligator Point, just southwest of Tallahassee on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Damned if Donna didn’t just graze Miami, cross out into the Gulf and curl northeast right for Alligator Point. So she packed us all back into the car and raced back to Miami just out of harm’s way.

I remember being at Alligator Point as a little boy and eating watermelon in front of the radio and listening for reports on Hurricane Camille. In 1979, I drove with two friends to North Myrtle Beach to experience Hurricane David, only the second hurricane ever with a male name. It wasn’t much of a storm by the time it passed by, but that didn’t matter to three boys just graduated from high school, full of youthful invincibility and thirsty for independence. We walked the empty sand streets swinging our bottles of beer and singing Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”

Despite my seemingly cavalier attitude, I respect hurricanes. I’ve bookmarked the National Hurricane Center website, and I suggest you do the same. The site gives good advice about preparing for a hurricane. Sandbags and plywood are sitting in my basement, just in case. And, should my grandmother read this, rest assured I have plenty of liquor in the house. But I won’t stick around for a major hurricane. No sir. I fear Rehoboth won’t fare so well in a really big one. We’re so close to the ocean. And, I worry about the quality of some of the new development. Speaking of which, some people I know think a “big wind” might be the only way to blow all the speculators, developers, and slime weasels out of Rehoboth. How delightfully perverse! As for me, well, I’ll just sit in my garden and keep my eyes on the tropics and my fingers crossed.