Holding Back The Sea On Cape Cod: A Lesson From Down South

It could and it did happen here

By Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press


ape Cod, we are fond of saying, is a dead-end streetâ??a blessing and a curse at times. It is a natural jetty, jutting out into the Atlantic and Nantucket Sound, a maritime barrier that often absorbs the punch of violent storms roiling up the eastern seaboard. These meteorological imbroglios are expected to increase in regularity and intensity in coming years.

If you click on this chart you will see the path of every hurricane to hit New England snce 1900. The worse one, the Great Storm of 1938, was not know of until minutes before it hit the south shore of Long Island and swept ovver New England from New Haven to Cape Cod.

The destructive power of hurricanes in the North Atlantic has doubled in the past 30 years and will continue to increase, according to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study. An MIT hurricane specialist, Kerry Emanuel, has suggested a warming of the oceanâ??s surface temperatures provide hurricanes with more energy to stir higher wind speeds.

Witing on the subject years ago, another storm expert suggested hurricanes in the future might throw off winds in excess of 200 miles an hour, a speed that would virtually flatten Cape Codâ??in this case, literally a sitting duck. Itâ??s not if, but more a matter of when. The storm surge of a Category 4 or 5 storm would reduce the peninsula for a time into a series of islands, particularly on the Outer Cape. New England has had 24 Hurricanes and 14 Tropical Storms since 1900.

The horror unfolding in Louisiana and Mississippi, in terms of damage and loss, may be a preludeâ??up-close and personalâ??of what to expect here some day. We had a taste in 1991 with spiteful Hurricane Bob, and earlier with the Great Storm of 1938. And we are no better prepared today at the national, regional, state and local levels. No one seems to want to respond until the lights are out, but thatâ??s when we start tripping over each other, as they are along the Gulf Coast, with the government leading the way.

Kristina as precursor

Cape Cod almost "got it"
in the 1938 Hurricane


he hurricane of 1938 has been called, "the wind that shook the world". In 1938 the U.S. Weather Bureau wasn't what it is today . Meteorologists depended on the merchant ships and aircraft to forecast the weather. At 2:15 on Wednesday, September 21 1938 a Long Island fisherman saw what he thought was a huge fog bank, then, he realized it wasn't fog. It was a churning wall of water 50 feet high bearing down on the New England coast and thirteen million unsuspecting people, with 200 miles per hour winds. The eye of the hurricane came at 60 mph, the velocity of a tornado. It hit the Connecticut shore a little after 3p.m. and flooded downtown Providence and New Bedford.

Future Oracle reporter on the job

Barns sixty miles inland were white with salt spray the next morning. 564 died and 100,000 were homeless in an era when the population was a quarter of what it is today. Communications and roads to Cape Cod were cut off, but an enterprising young Orleans native reporter, Mary Smith, at the Providence Journal contacted the French Cable Co. in Brest, France to find out what the conditions were in her hometown. A few years later she and her husnad Ed started The Oracle newspaper.

The great New England hurricane of 1938 struck at high tide, which coincided with the highest astronomical tide of the year, pushing a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet across the south coast and up the many bays and inlets including Narragansett and Buzzards Bays. Winds of over 120 mph blew across the coastal regions. The Blue Hill observatory, in Milton MA, recorded a sustained 5-minute wind of 121 mph and a peak gust to 186 mph.

Parts of interior Connecticut and Massachusetts not only bore the brunt of high winds, but also experienced severe river flooding as rain from the hurricane combined with heavy rains earlier that week to produce rainfall totals of up to 17 inches. This resulted in some of the worst river flooding ever experienced in parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts.

This powerful storm caused 564 deaths and over 1700 injuries. Nearly 9,000 homes and businesses were destroyed with over 15,000 damaged. The boating community was equally devastated with 2,600 boats destroyed and 3,300 damaged.

WHOI as the wave hit Cape Cod, and houses floated through the Cape Cod Canal.

Last Sunday as killer Katrinaâ??then a Category 5 storm packing 160-mile-an-hour winds with the threat of a 28-foot storm surgeâ??roared toward New Orleans, many in the region found religion. â??Have God on your side,â? warned a woman, who sat gridlocked in fleeing traffic. â??Definitely have God on your side! Itâ??s very frightening,â? she told the Associated Press.

In the turbulent and tragic wake of Katrinaâ??with hundreds, possibly thousands feared dead, looters roaming free in the streets (not to mention the corporate looters like the oil companies and some retailers), and an estimated $25 billion and climbing in property damage, making the hurricane one of the worst natural disasters in the nationâ??s historyâ??the Almighty seems to have taken a long weekend, and during those critical hours of first response, the Bush Administration also appears to have been missing in action, a lapse that may prove to be a political high water mark for the maxim: too little, too late.

Television and newspaper coverage of the event, from both liberal and conservative sources, has been stunning: horrific footage, photos and anecdotes of scores waiting helplessly in the cruel southern sun to be rescued as if trapped on an isolated planet, while the bodies of friends and family members bobbed in the surge of Noah proportions.

"Help us" was a futile cry

â??Help us,â? was the futile cry, as a bloated and sluggish bureaucracy responded after an official sigh of relief that the region had dodged a bulletâ??the full, ugly force of this weapon of mass destruction. It was as if our Commander-In-Chief George Bush had re-appeared on the deck of an aircraft carrier to declare prematurely that another war was over. The delayed and fatal blast the following day was an aging levee system that predictably couldnâ??t hold back the rising and rocking tide of Lake Pontchartrain. While television and newspapers now report the flood of National Guardsmen, financial aid, food, water, pumping equipment and all the concomitant spin, where was all this outpouring in the first 72 hours, a time when lives could have been saved? It is a chilling reminder of our measured and derisory early response to Tsunami relief.

As naïve as it sounds, one supreme command from the Oval Office, declaring this to be the highest national priority, no matter what the cost or effort, ought to be enough in this day of instant communication to get sufficient help on the street to respond to a disaster that was always a possibility. The key is good, long-range planning, and there wasnâ??t much here. Earlier this summer, for example, Louisiana â??pleaded for federal help to protect the stateâ??s rapidly eroding coastlineâ?¦but the state was rebuffed by an administration and a Congress bent on budget-cutting,â? according to a Boston Globe report.

Bush last Sunday from his Crawford, Texas ranch declared a â??massive relief effortâ? was in the works. â??We cannot stress enough the danger this hurricane poses,â? he said, sounding the alarm.

But it will take more than a declaration of war on hurricanes. Hollow words alone fall short, if essential emergency infrastructures are not in place. With more powerful storms predicted in the years to come, perhaps we ought to spend less time and money tilting at windmills in Iraq, and focus more on defending our vulnerable shorelines, our exposed flank.

Neptune is awaiting our next move in this conflict.

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