Opinion: An eye on the storm


Published: 09-17-2023 8:00 AM

Jean Stimmell, retired stone mason and psychotherapist, lives in Northwood and blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.

As I write this, Lee, a major hurricane, is slowly churning northward off the eastern seaboard. While it’s too early to tell where it will make landfall, it now looks like it will at least brush New England. I am following the storm closely, coming as I do from a hurricane-obsessed family.

Our weather addiction started with the hurricane of 1938 before computers existed to track storms. September 21st, 1938, started out like any other. No one knew that “one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history” was bearing down on us, according to the National Weather Service.

The storm has been called New England’s Katrina; it had sustained winds of 120 mph with a maximum recorded wind gust of 186 mph at Blue Hill Observatory, MA. The peak storm surge was 17 feet above normal high tide and a 50’ peak wave height at Gloucester, MA. Across the region, 700 were killed and 8,900 homes and businesses destroyed, resulting in damages exceeding $41 billion (in 2010 dollars).

Over the region, the hurricane destroyed an estimated two billion trees. The damage was still evident decades later in the woods behind my grandfather’s house where an entire mature pine forest was ripped asunder with the trunks haphazardly coming to rest against each other as if a giant had been playing a game of pick-up sticks.

My father was mesmerized by this cataclysm materializing like black magic out of a blue-bird bright sky. It turned him into a weather nut. I remember growing up watching him, hunched over his crackly AM radio, monitoring the forecasts morning and night. He was not about to be caught with his pants down again.

According to my father’s calculations, he determined we should expect a hurricane every 20 years. When I was nine, history seemed to be bearing him out. In 1954, “A tropical one-two punch that was almost unimaginable hit New Hampshire,” according to WMUR.

That’s when Hurricane Carol, a fast-moving hurricane following almost the same track as the hurricane of 1938, ripped into us. Again, it arrived unannounced, as far as my mother, brother, and I were concerned. My father, away on a business trip, missed a chance to warn us — if, in fact, there was any official warning to give.

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On that day, we had driven to Hampton to visit my grandmother on what we thought was just a run-of-the-mill, rainy day. But throughout the morning, the wind strengthened, getting serious by the time we started home.

My mother was a white-knuckle driver under the best of circumstances. This time, it was warranted. The old metal bridge spanning Great Bay was swaying back and forth in the wind as we crossed. Driving back through Northwood, trees were toppling over along Route 4.

Then, just 12 days later, Hurricane Edna slammed into New Hampshire with sustained winds over 60 mph. The ground, already weakened by Carol, added to the damage, bringing down even more trees and power lines.

That’s when the hurricane bug was passed on to me. But now, much of my enthusiasm has fizzled.

Back then, we were innocent bystanders, standing in awe of the transcendent power of Mother Nature. Now, we are all co-conspirators who are responsible for adding to the destruction destined to rain down upon us through our shortsighted daily actions.