At Large: Some breezy advice

At Large: Some breezy advice

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Here is some advice about hurricane preparedness. Apart from the hope that you will use your own good judgment in deciding how to prepare, the following are the two most important steps to take.

First, visit The Times website, www.mvtimes.com. Look for Breaking news or updates. Then click on the weather link in the upper right corner of the main page, then click the Tropical Storms link to the left of the weather advisory and pick the storm you’d like.

(A word of personal preference, I think it makes sense to follow storm forecasts from beginning to end from the same forecast outlet. Seeing something on The Times weather site, then the National Hurricane Center site online, then the commercial radio weather, then the TV forecast that accompanies the evening news can be confusing. Emphasis, target audience, timing of the updates, the outfit on today’s good looking weather girl — it can all be confusing and misleading. Pick a solid source and stick with it.)

As I write this, if you visit the Times weather page, the outlook is benign, but soon, and certainly, a disturbance will drift off the West African coast and begin its track across the South Atlantic. When that happens, interest will sharpen and likely tracks will begin to appear on computer screens, but like 10-year budget forecasts by Congress or the White House, touts for pretty fillies in the seventh at Santa Anita, global warming forecasts by gloomy environmentalist scolds, or market timing advice by stock brokers, it’s not something on which you want to place a big bet.

The second thing to do, without fail, is to read “A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane,” by Everett S. Allen (Little, Brown and Company, 1976). It’s out of print, but not undiscoverable.

Everett Allen began work as a reporter for the New Bedford Standard Times on Sept. 21, 1938, the day the granddaddy of East Coast hurricanes traveled murderously north and east along the Atlantic Seaboard, smashing everything in its path. That great storm made an impression on the young reporter, who lived on the Vineyard but had mainland ambitions.

Everett was following in the footsteps of his father, Joseph Chase Allen, the former Vineyard Gazette’s Wheelhouse Loafer and the weekly spinner of the With the Fisherman yarn. Joseph Chase Allen lived at the corner of Crocker Avenue and Main Street in Vineyard Haven with his wife Anna. He worked in a first floor room, no bigger than an office but large enough to fit the rolltop desk and Royal typewriter at which he worked. Later in life, when Everett’s journalism career was well launched, he was a frequent visitor to his father’s house, but basically a mainlander.

Joe Allen was a New Bedford news reporter who became a Vineyard Gazette fabulist. His son, who in the early 1970s was the editorial writer for the Standard-Times, tended toward non-fiction, but with what must have been an inherited flair for dramatic narrative. The story of the 1938 hurricane was a perfect match for Everett Allen’s considerable storytelling skills.

Although on Friday, Earl turned out not to be a great threat to our Vineyard lives, forecasters insist, as they regularly do, that this summer-long hurricane season of 2010 will be a busy one, and a storm with our name on it may be spinning to life in the deserts of West Africa as I write. Certainly, there will be another one day, perhaps not as wicked as the 1938 blast, but devilish nevertheless. Everett Allen describes the destruction such a storm can cause.

“In Edgartown,” Allen writes, “the tide rose until it flooded summer homes along the harbor front. Piers were under water, fences went adrift, and so did boathouses and boats. Captain Fred Vidler, keeper of the harbor light, said that at least twenty and probably more boats of various sizes went out past the lighthouse in the tide. Seven or eight were battered against the lighthouse bridge, a number sank, with only their masts visible, and the Chappaquiddick ferry lay shattered. Water rose halfway to the eaves of the Edgartown Yacht Club; within, the piano was afloat.”

But the best part of Allen’s book is not his description of the storm or the mess it made of the coast. That’s the stuff we commonly see on television these days as it happens, although it’s mostly wind-whipped rollers and tree-tortured footage and not floating pianos. And Allen’s prose does not resemble the bare and qualified language of the weather forecasters. Instead, Allen, in a conversation with Thomas P.F. Hoving, then the director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and a summer resident, documents the unique smell of a big hurricane.

“‘I remember the smell of the eye of the hurricane,’ Hoving said. ‘It smelled like six billion air-conditioning sets dispensing ozone.'”

In 1938, Hoving was seven. His mother thought he would be safest under a card table.

“‘That was where my mother put us while the hurricane was going on,'” the grownup Hoving told Allen. “‘To keep us children calm, she put two or three card tables together and laid blankets over them, and my sister was instructed to tell us all the ghost stories she knew. She stretched the one about the screaming skull over about three hours. We were so scared of her ghost stories we forgot about being scared of the storm till it was all over. When the smell went away and the storm had subsided, we went out to see what damage it had done.'”

Allen understood, as we should, that hurricanes are not merely tightly packed isobars on a weather map or upended elms in a video clip. They are certainly not the faux-dramas ginned up by TV news and weather casters. They’re much better than all that. Hurricanes are dangerous real life adventures that quicken the pulse and slam the door shut on a humdrum summer.

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