At Large : Wild weather work
For two weeks, we've been worrying about hurricanes that didn't arrive. There are a lot of vexing decisions to be made when the meteorologists begin to track what they call a wave tumbling off the west coast of Africa. The forecasters love this stuff, and they are confident that early warnings mean they are being responsible weather people. But, it takes a toll.
When the disorganized tropical disturbance is still in mid-Atlantic, we get busy. We take a look at the calendar. Take a look at the projected track. Will the arrival of the hurricane we're watching coincide with the car reservation that means the end our summer vacation? Should we move up the reservation to get the kid off to college? Should we put the outdoor furniture in the garage? Haul the outboard? Shutter the east-facing windows? Cut down that tree whose limb now overhangs the screened porch? There's a disorganized disturbance around the house, never mind the mid-Atlantic.
And, these past two weeks we've had the president to worry about. Will he have to leave early? If he does leave early, does that mean his staff knows something we don't know, and the hurricane is a sure bet? A real hurricane would toss Marine One all over the tarmac, and then how would they get the president and that thing they call the satchel to safety? Maybe he'll tell his national security advisor to stop yammering about his safety. He'd like to stay here, ride it out, see what a hurricane is really like.
Stop it. We can't be worrying about the president and the hurricane. We have to concentrate on us and the hurricane.
Then there is that collection of computer models describing the projected track of the cyclonic disturbances that potter westward across the South Atlantic to become hurricanes - or not. They are generally accurate, but they don't say anything definitive about what's going to happen in your back yard. Seventy miles this way or that can make a big difference, everyone says.
Really, is there not something to be said about the old days, when there was no warning, or only a vague, uneasy sense that something big was imminent. Remember Carol. That was a storm that meant business, and the damage to my old neighborhood and the familiar waterfront downtown remains unforgettable. The newspapers published rotogravure sections after the storm passed, with photos of the draggers and scallopers beached in parking lots and the sailboats perched on docks. Paper-covered commemorative booklets appeared each August for a couple of years to mark the anniversary of Carol's 1954 visit.
There are two chief impressions left for me by that monster. First, Carol changed the light in my life. My parents' house sat on a corner, a leafy, quiet intersection distinguished by a great elm tree on each of the four corners. These were big, disease-free trees, the largest about three feet in diameter just above the ground. Streetlights winked through their leaves at night. You could stay dry in a light rain standing beneath them. If you could get up 10 or 12 feet into the first division of the trunk, you could climb high enough to look into the second floor windows of the houses on all floor corners.
These trees tore up the concrete sidewalks with their searching roots, and my dad grumbled about them when he couldn't push his snow blower cleanly around the corner where our elm stood.
Carol blew all four of them down. What had been a sweetly shady summer street, branches and leaves rustling comfortingly outside the windows in the dark, became a bald, sun-scoured crossroads. Where these huge, active elms had dwarfed the modest cottages and bungalows beneath them, the simple houses now commanded the scene. Everything looked a little poorer.
My folks' place was on the northeast corner. Carol blew hardest from the southeast. All the trees fell toward the northwest corner, into the yard and onto the great, rounded porch of our very nice neighbors across the street. Not one leaf or branch from any of those trees fell upon my dad's lawn. We were in the right semicircle, the dangerous side of Carol, which tracked northward through Massachusetts just east of Worcester.
Donna, another whopper in September of 1960, tracked about the same way. Bob, the troublesome August 1991 storm, passed just about over the Cape Cod Canal. All three were west of the Vineyard, but close. The Great Northeast Hurricane of September 1938 passed north through the western part of Massachusetts, but it was so expansive that the greater separation amounted to not much help.
"Hurricanes affecting the North Atlantic," according to the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book's brief disquisition on such storms, "usually move west or northwest from the Eastern Caribbean, veering to the north and east and losing force as they spin out to sea... In the right or dangerous semicircle, where the spiral winds are heading in the same general direction as the eye, the two velocities are combined and therefore maximum. In the left or navigable semicircle, they are subtractive and lesser velocities will be met." That's for me.
To the west of the storm, the wind, slightly more moderate, backs (counterclockwise) from northeast through north to west. To the east of the storm, the fierce side, the wind veers, or moves clockwise, from east to southeast, south, and finally southwest.
That's how I could tell, even before the forensic meteorologists summed it all up, that we had been on the bad side of Carol. All those elms fell to the raging south-southeasterlies Carol packed late in her passage.
On the weather maps today, another disturbance in mid-Atlantic is trying to organize itself. It is expected to graduate to tropical storm status in a couple of days and threaten the Lesser Antilles. And we may be expected to get organized ourselves, once again.