20 Years Ago Today... Hurricane Bob

Hurricane Bob, August 19, 1991

Take a look out the window today... sunny, warm, a sea breeze... not too shabby. Cape Cod Cool. 20 years ago today, if you stuck your head out the window, you probably would have lost it.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod's worst modern disaster... Hurricane Bob.

A lot of things have happened to Cape Cod. We were fired upon by the British Navy. We've had 4 feet of snow fall at once. We let Senator Kennedy drive around drunk, and never punished him when he killed a local girl. We've had shipwrecks, massive fires, depressions, and Native attacks.

We had a plague wipe out our local Native population, but I'll call that our Last Ancient Disaster. That trumps Bob on death toll, but you'd have to stack up a lot of tipis to pay off some of the waterfront property that was destroyed by Bob.

We'd also rank the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 as a worse storm, but that went ashore along the Connecticut River. Bob was basically all ours.

Hurricane Bob started off as an area of low pressure off the SE USA. It then hugged the US East Coast while strengthening to a Category 2 storm. At his peak, he had 115 mph sustained winds. A pair of cruise ships caught in the storm reported 35 foot waves. He did some slight damage to the Carolinas (they've had worse), and then took aim at New England.

Hurricane watches went up from Carolina to Canada. Cape Codders reaction was rational, as in "panic is rational as a hurricane approaches." An 11 mile backup formed at the bridges as people fled the Cape during the height of summer. Many more residents battened down the hatches and rode the storm out at home. You could go to the store, but you were looking at a 20% chance of getting batteries, milk, bread, bottled water, etc...

We were less than 15 years removed from the horrific Blizzard of '78, and memories work hard here on the Cape. It was even worse in Maine, when President George Bush I evacuated Kennebunkport. While thousands of people were running for their lives, Bush's motorcade shut down I-95 for an hour so he could evacuate into New Hampshire.

Bob followed an up-the-seaboard path similar to that taken by Carol in 1954. We actually dodged a bullet with Bob somewhat, in that our sea temperatures hadn't peaked for the season yet. If Bob came this way on September 21st, he may have been Category 3.

That probably doesn't comfort you too much if you lost your home, but hey... I just call 'em like I see 'em, kids.

Bob stormed over Block Island and made landfall at Newport. He did so with sustained winds around 100 mph. He crossed over Rhodey and Eastern Massachusetts. Even after crossing inland over two admittedly small states, Bob had enough moxie to emerge into the Gulf Of Maine as a 70 mph tropical storm.

Cape Cod bore the brunt of the damages. The bridges closed at 2 PM on the 19th, as the winds surged past hurricane force. Thousands of residents and tourists sought shelter in local emergency areas. Everyone else just hunkered down and prayed for the best. These prayers went unanswered.

Bob whupped up on Cape Cod like an angry stepfather. Truro and Brewster recorded 125 mph wind gusts. Otis Air Force Base saw 90 mph sustained winds. A 15 foot storm surge funneled up Buzzards Bay (we share a certain storm-surge-intensifying geography with Bangladesh, in that storm surges are compressed and heightened as the Bay narrows). Two unconfirmed tornadoes were reported in Massachusetts, and the USS Valdez (docked at Newport) recorded a barometric pressure of 28.47 inches.

The worst hit areas were Wareham and Bourne. Onset was essentially leveled by a 15 foot storm surge, and Taylor's Point was pretty much totally under water. Driving was impossible on the Cranberry Highway, unless you had one of those amphibious James Bond cars. The Boston Globe's front page picture the next day was the former Tugboat Rotary, which looked like Godzilla had walked through it.

Bob spread the wealth, however. Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket's south-facing coastlines lost 50 feet of beach to Bob. Cove Road in Mattapoisett lost 27 of 32 houses. Fatalities were spread from Provinctown to Bourne. Rhode Island was declared a disaster area by Bush I. Connecticut took between 3-6" of rain. We "lucked out" on rain, as the eye was close to us, giving us roughly an inch. Portland, Maine had 8.2 inches of rain in 24 hours.

Three deaths were reported. 2 men had heart attacks, and a gym teacher at Bourne High School was electrocuted at his summer job. We were lucky there weren't a thousand dead.

Ironically, I watched this storm 20 miles up Route 3 on Duxbury Beach (that picture to the right is from a 2010 nor'easter, not Bob), and we got off easy. It hit between tides, the winds were from the South, and I got so drunk at the hurricane party that I actually slept through the height of the storm. While Cape Codders were praying and crying, I was drunkenly boogie boarding on the fierce, offtide surf. I took my beating from the Halloween Gale later that year, and was homeless until January or so.

Cape Cod was without power for a week, and some people waited a month. The Citgo on 28A in Falmouth has a picture of them pumping gasoline after the storm (they had a generator) with about 300 yards of cars lined up. My cottage on Buttermilk Bay sits on a nice grassy hill, but the neighbors have pictures of the neighborhood as a sandy wasteland. Cape Cod suffered about $1.7 billion dollars worth of 1991 damage.

We get a storm every 30 years or so here, and we're coming up on being due. There is a big storm forming in the central Atlantic that is presently forecast to race up the eastern seaboard, much like Bob did. It has a surface trough to guide it up the coast, just like Bob did. It will most likely go somewhere else, but I just needed something ominous to end the article with.

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