At Large: The big one – not this year, I guess

At Large: The big one – not this year, I guess

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Here is some advice about hurricane preparedness. The following are the two most important steps to take.

First, visit The Times web site, mvtimes.com, click on the weather link, then type in an Island Zip Code, then click the Severe Weather link.

Today, if you visit the weather page, you’ll find Nadine is pottering around the eastern Atlantic and expected to do nothing else for the next five days. Nadine displays no evil intentions toward New England. Nothing much else is happening in the East-West, South Atlantic glide path for hurricanes beginning as dust storms in Africa, but New Englanders need to keep looking over their shoulders. In fact, that’s the general advice for New Englanders each year: never mind the pre-hurricane season forecasts, they’re never right, but keep a sharp eye out. The predictions released before the June 1 start of the hurricane season foresaw a very busy few months. But, the forecasters don’t know what’s going to happen.

“Although we got off to a fast start in 2012, we feel that the heart of the season will be much less active than the last two, as an El Nino event continues to mature slowly and provide an unfavorable environment for tropical development,” said Dr. Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for Weather Services International (WSI), a part of The Weather Channel Companies. That was the July revision. You may have noticed a trace of glum resignation in Dr. Crawford’s observation. One’s heart goes out.

But, you don’t need to be a meteorologist. If you watch carefully and constantly, you’ll know when something is about to happen. You’ll know long before the big blow approaches.

When a big storm does develop, there’s a map available on The Times weather site that presents a tracking forecast for up to five days ahead. It’s interesting but, like 10-year budget forecasts by Congress or the White House, or the touts for pretty fillies in the seventh at Santa Anita, or global warming forecasts by gloom and doom environmentalists, or market timing advice by stock brokers, it’s not something on which you want to place a big bet.

This time of the year, as summer expires and fall pretends to be summer’s cousin, 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 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. Later in life, his journalism career well launched, Everett was a frequent visitor, but basically a mainlander.

Everett, 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.

Forecasters generally insist that the summer-long hurricane season will be a busy one, and that a storm with our name on it will be spinning to life in the deserts of West Africa. They are mostly wrong, but certainly, they will be right one day about a storm, though perhaps not as wicked as the 1938 blast, because we’ll have some warning, 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 tree 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.’”

Describing his persistent, intrusive research for his book, Allen wrote, “For two years, I have forced myself — and countless others — to see again the sick color of the sky and sea on that day, to hear the scream of the wind, which was everywhere; to confront anew the shocking, instant obliteration of what had always been assumed permanent, mile upon mile of man’s work reduced to rubble…. I have made people weep by asking them to remember what for many of them remains their most terrible day.”

Allen understood, as we should, that a hurricane is no small thing.

A version of this column appeared in this space in September of 2006.