Notes on a Storm
September 9, 2011
The seawall by Crescent Bluff was washed right out to sea—we watched it go, battered by twenty-foot waves. Storm surge hopped the harbor walls and buried the tennis courts, parking lots, and golf course up to the eighth hole, and on the avenues there was boiling sewage and the sidewalk was smashed. Linden Avenue is impassable, which leaves the whole Possun Park crowd stranded, possibly for weeks. If I were them, I’d start having bonfires down at the water, because they’re not going to be hauling those fallen trees away any time soon. Everywhere along the coast, the sheer destructive power of water was on display. There were bathhouses reduced to kindling, boulders sucked from hundred-year resting places and heaved onto beachfronts. A large, square chunk of dock now sits stranded in the yacht club parking lot. And true to the spirit of the area, even the height of the storm was a social event. My cousin and I were originally at the point, what our family calls the first point (as opposed to the second point, or the breakwater at the other end). It was here that we watched, and were soaked by, the fearsome high tide and height of the storm. Later J. came by with some guys and a truck, and we jumped in back with a couple beers and toured the damage. What we concluded is that the coastline is going to look a bit different after Irene. Maybe not dramatically, but for those of us who have memorized this landscape’s details, details we assumed were immemorial, the storm-wrought alterations are significant, even shocking. The jetty at the old house is gone, after sixty years of service. That large, amorphous concrete platform that abutted the seawall is finally gone. The woeful structure had been falling apart for a decade, and what will grow up in its place is anybody’s guess. Owenego, that odd little social club at the foot of Possun Park, is in ruins; every single bathhouse is gone, to the point where one can’t even tell they had existed. The bathhouse itself seems like a holdover from the Gatsby era, what you might call Pine Orchard’s golden age, and its thorough eradication is a detail I can’t help but reduce to metaphor.
For all of Irene’s damages, there remains a certain ambivalence to the event, a resignedness that, I suppose, arises when dealing with natural phenomena. Certainly there is no anger. I think most folks who live on the coast recognize at least the possibility of a catastrophic storm, so when something of the sort finally appears, complaining about it doesn’t seem fair. Or rather, the concept of fairness itself would be misapplied in this case. The boys and I walked around the neighborhoods quite a bit, talking to people. Everyone acted more amazed than anything else. Indeed, they seemed conscious of having seen firsthand an event that only occurs every 75 years or so, something truly remarkable. And so everyone had a story about how high the waves were, how close to them a tree had fallen, how complete the damage was to this or that street. Irene was an experience at once universally shared and intensely neighborhood-specific. Hochkiss Grove, flooded and evacuated, saw a different storm than the harbor, with its own sea surge but with room (the parking lots, the golf course) to spread out, while Crescent Bluff dealt instead with the full-on impact of the waves, and the erosion and destruction that caused. And of course, even a mile inland, the storm was very different. So, though normally I’m bored by local news, I’ve been consuming stories about Irene as much as my lack of Internet at home or work allows—largely by radio (one result of the storm is that I’ve taken the time to find local news on the radio, which may prove useful in the future). If you have stories, feel free to share them below.
Ultimately, I’m curious to see what shape the coastline takes a year from now, what changes will become permanent, which ruptures will be repaired. When I tell my grandchildren about waves as big as buildings, what will they think of? How much of the storm will be forgotten, or confined to the inexact and half-listened to retelling? Seamus Heaney asks us, perhaps in defense, to “lie down in the treasure hoard/of memory.” But in the Internet age, I don’t think we know yet the exact confines of that cave, what memory will mean to us in thirty or fifty years. Our detailed records will outlast our detailed minds. But, if one of the goals of life—maybe the only goal—is acquiring such psychic treasure, then the events of Hurricane Irene may prove invaluable. Whether they listen to me or not, I can say: I was there.