Last summer, when Hurricane Bill was approaching on through, Matt Griffin and I headed out to see if we could cover the upcoming story. The story in this case being the pre-storm hype. That and all the news trucks camped out in the half-hour parking spaces in front of the lighthouse and none sporting a single orange ticket on their windshield of a violation for overstaying the half-hour limit. Never mind the network camera equipment set up on the same beach that the local yoga class has to pay hundreds of dollars for a permit to use.
The lesson being, we supposed, that you can do whatever you want in the New Chatham as long as you are a) from out of town, and b) famous.
Poor locals are expected to follow the rules and pay. A perverse reverse logic.
Fittingly, the media machine that seems to have become much too familiar with Chatham during the summer, and the non-stories that can be inflated in order to rationalize a long weekend here (sharks, storms, a house painted green), was duly skewered in our film on the pre-storm frenzy. Likewise, when Bill failed to materialize as any real threat because, as predicted, it was 300 miles offshore, we went out again the next morning. Assessing “storm damage” for this installment, we were able to interview CNN personnel from New York about, well, the whole bunch of nothing they came here to cover.
Then they were back the next weekend for Tropical Depression Danny. That turned out to be just a whole lot of rain. From what I could tell, the worst it did was to deposit in my skiff a couple inches of rain and, somehow, a large rotting horseshoe crab. For the media, I’m sure the breakfast brunch at Chatham Bars Inn was impeccable as always. That’s a commitment to the news.
But with such a low opinion of the media and those who believe them, I felt it was only a matter of time before they would be, at long last, proven correct. This broken clock had to be right at least twice a day. And so I came to wonder if that would be Earl.
This wasn’t because of anything I saw on television or observed locally. Rather, it was far from the coast, at over 6,000 feet above sea level in northern New England. For our end of the summer trek, like last summer, Sofie and I drove to the top of Mount Washington. We timed it just right, as the highs in the surrounding area were forecast for the mid-90s. The day before the observatory at the summit was reporting 54 degrees and gusts of 76 mph. I was wondering if the narrow, windy road, free of guard rails or shoulders with drops down sheer cliffs, would be closed. No.
It was a brilliant day, with temperatures in the 60s. Gusts were up to 50 mph. We took a hike 1,200 feet down to the Lake of the Clouds. The whole time we remained above the tree line.
Following our way back down, we made the necessary stop at Dairy Queen, then continued our cross-country journey to the coast, ending up in Freeport for some lastminute back-to-school shopping. Passing through Naples, Maine, I saw an LED sign out front of the fire station with “101 F” in glowing red. I assume it did not mean one hundred and one feet.
Record high temperatures down below and with hurricane-force winds combined with sunny, mild temps at the nexus of four weather systems high above gave me pause. Perhaps, yes, this time this might just be the storm we’ve been looking for.
The next day, following our day at Water Country, I stopped at the Wal-Mart in Portsmouth, N.H. to pick up several packs of D batteries. Not so much because I thought I would need them, but because I had been informed that they were now non-existent in Chatham. I imagined myself in a bulky sweatshirt, hood up and skulking darkened street corners while people slowed down their cars and ask, “Hey man, you know where we can get some D?”
After all, those fall dresses from LL Bean and Peanut Buster Parfaits weren’t going to pay for themselves.
Once home, we moved furniture off the deck and waited for the rain to start. It was forecast for noon. I felt lucky that I was able to squeeze in a run up to Sofie’s pediatrician in Wellfleet. On the way back, the rain began, and followed us down to Orleans. Once in Harwich, it stopped. Back in Chatham, it was almost sunny. But oppressively humid. I considered for a moment that my last column about a rain shadow surrounding Chatham might not be as far off as I had thought. But I saw the radar. Something big coming.
Yeah. The rain here finally hit at 8 p.m. Yes, it was heavy. But we still didn’t get as much as Yarmouth. And the wind was barely more than a breeze for most of the afternoon. Although I read in the Boston Globe of “a deafening wind” down at the Chatham Lighthouse, I can report that a mile away on the Oyster Pond the wind was not audible from inside our home. That is pretty unusual for any windy day.
So, having partially succumbed to the belief that this could be a real hurricane, I looked back at the real weather indicators. We were on the weak side of the storm. It was a Category 3 off North Carolina, and as it moved north it was likely to be a Category 1 by the time it got here. The barometer (remember that, National Weather Service?) was not dropping precipitously.
The “Better Safe Than Sorry” crowd really needs to take it on the chin this time. Are we to go on alert for any level of risk? Well, crying “storm” one too many times undercuts credibility. We want the public to listen when the threat truly is serious and credible. And saying it is hard to predict these sorts of things when we can send probes to Mars and stuff powerful handheld computers into tiny little phones strains credulity. It seems that as the ability to accurately predict weather increases, so does the need to be frighten Americans with the greatest extremes of it. So it would be refreshing to use our best intelligence in making smart choices next time a hurricane or snowstorm heads our way. Perhaps weather forecasters and public officials could set an example by noting the words of Edward R. Murrow: “We are not descended from fearful men.”
In the mean time, if your flashlight’s batteries are dead I’ve got a nice supply of high-grade Copper Top.
Read this and Andy's other columns online at The Cape Cod Chronicle.