Hurricanes I Have Known

by Neal Sanders
Leaflet Contributor

In the 1986 film, ‘Crocodile Dundee’, Mick Dundee and his girlfriend walk the streets of New York at night when they are accosted by a would-be mugger, who brandishes a switchblade and demands Mick’s wallet. His girlfriend urges Mick to give up his wallet and says, ‘He’s got a knife!” Mick chuckles and says, “That’s not a knife.” He pulls out his Bowie knife, suitable for skinning crocodiles. “Now that’s a knife.” The mugger runs away.

I have to confess I feel the same about New England hurricanes. Having grown up in south Florida, I was witness to some of the nastiest storms ever to cross the Atlantic. Fifty years ago this week, Hurricane Donna slammed into the Florida Keys with 150-plus-mile-per-hour winds, meandered its way up through the Everglades, stalled, then emerged at Daytona Beach and went on to wreak havoc up and down the East Coast.

Hurricane photoBecause of its erratic path, Miami was battered by sustained 120-mile-per-hour winds for more 12 hours. We emerged from our house to find half a dozen large trees snapped off a few feet off the ground and the leaves stripped from those that still stood. Our street was impassable for a week because the canopy of tall, brittle Australian pines that lined it had turned the thoroughfare into a giant plank road. And, when the trees fell, the above-ground power lines came down with them. Oh, and the storm dropped a foot of rain. To paraphrase Mick Dundee, now that’s a hurricane.

By the time hurricanes reach New England, they are fast-moving storms that, however powerful, don’t linger long enough to deliver widespread wind damage (storm surges are another, much more serious matter). Yes, I have seen the photos of the beach homes either destroyed or left precariously perched on eroded dunes. But the operative work is beach, and there are a set of well-recognized dangers to building on a beach or a barrier island.

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 is in a category by itself. It made a bee-line across the Atlantic and made no other landfall until it pushed a storm surge into Falmouth and New Bedford that left those communities under eight feet of water. Seventy-two years later, it is still the standard against which northeastern hurricanes are measured.

We went through Hurricane Gloria in 1985 when we lived in Medfield. Gloria, you may recall, came up through the center of Long Island, then central Connecticut. We lost a few pines. More importantly, we lost power for five days (and vowed never again to live on a street with above-ground power lines). As hurricanes go, though, it was a dud. It blew in after dark and by the following morning, the sun was out. I can think of half a dozen nor’easters that did more damage to our landscape.

As this is written, Hurricane Earl is on course to pass east of Nantucket and brush the Cape with hurricane-force winds. The dirty little secret of hurricanes is that their greatest force is in their northeast quadrant meaning that, absent a major course correction, we on the mainland will see some gusty winds and an inch of two of much-needed rain.

Come to think about it, after living through Donna, Earl is my kind of hurricane.

Neal Sanders is a frequent contributor to the Leaflet. We encourage you to read his contributions to our In the Gardens Blog where he focuses on interesting cultivars that can found in the Elm Bank gardens. Neal's first novel, Murder Imperfect, has been published. You can learn more about it here or order it through Amazon.com.