April 18, 2007
"Can I do a front page story on the storm?" asked Lisa Finn, our South-ampton editor, in an email over the weekend. I asked why. "Someone said it's going to be the worst storm in 20 years," she wrote back. I scoffed.
I am not a weather freak, but I do possess a passing amount of knowledge about it, the result of an experience I had more than 15 years ago. I was a reporter for the Sag Harbor Herald then. It was Wednesday, October 30. Readers need to understand that in a small, peaceful village like Sag Harbor, weather really is a topic of conversation. The big storms, the big snows, the hot streaks, the cold spells, are all dutifully remembered and chewed on over a beer at The Corner Bar, often decades later. Everyone has an amusing "where were you then?" story.
I got a call at the newsroom, I can't remember from who, maybe Jeff Peters. "Have you seen Long Wharf?" the voice asked.
"Take a drive down here." It was about 4:30 in the afternoon, and we were on deadline. But I hopped in my car, the Deadmobile (a 1978 Dodge Dart) anyway. It's been a routine in the village forever to ride up Main Street, drive down Long Wharf, stop and check out one of the most magnificent harbors in the world, and then drive back through town. Not on this day.
I couldn't believe what I saw. Long Wharf was awash, waves pouring over the rails. Bay Street was a lake from the flagpole going east as far as the eye could see. I raced back to the office and called the East Hampton Star, our parent company, to get some photographers to the scene. The editor at the time, Eric Kuhn, passed my request along. Then another phone caller. A gust of wind had just snapped his neck nearly in half. "There's something big happening," the voice said.
I placed another call to The Star, and then another. Finally Eric called me back apologetically, telling me it was deadline and I shouldn't bother them anymore. I persisted, sensing a big story (what was news in Sag Harbor might not be in East Hampton, I reasoned). I called up Richard Hendrickson in Bridgehampton, our weather expert then (and now at Indy). Was it Hurricane Grace, which I had though to be stalled way out at sea just north of Bermuda? No, he said, that hurricane, thought to be the last of the season, was way out at sea and didn't have any effect on our local weather.
We put the paper to bed and went down to the Corner. It was like a gale, only much more powerful. It was foreboding, scary. Sleep was uneasy that night.
Over the North Atlantic, a remarkable thing was happening as I tossed in bed. Two days earlier, an extratropical cyclone developed along a Canadian cold front which had moved off the Northeast into the Atlantic. The low pressure system was located a few hundred miles east of the coast of Nova Scotia. Meanwhile Hurricane Grace turned abruptly to the east in response. The Eastern seaboard south of Jersey was pounded by swells. Grace was a huge storm, but the low pressure system to the north devoured her, feeding off her warm moisture and strengthening exponentially. A high pressure system off the coast of Greenland added to the chaos, the clash of the systems sending vicious winds onto the sea, churning the waves to record swells, sometimes as high as 40 feet.
I woke at dawn and realized we had missed a huge story. Sag Harbor was being pelted, more than I had ever witnessed from any hurricane. But it was more than that — the frightening howl of the wind, almost as if it were screaming and crying human voices, lent a horrific, surreal tension to the air.
And well it should have. The barometric pressure was one of the lowest ever recorded; beaches hundreds of miles away recorded record swells; surfers as far away as Puerto Rico shook their heads in surprise. Seismographs on the other side of the globe picked up a massive disturbance.
A couple days later meteorologists noted a tropical cyclone within the central area of the low, an unheard of phenomena. Like an unwanted, illegitimate baby, it suddenly was cast asunder, shunned by its own mother. The system made a beeline not west or north but east, straight towards us. It was a hurricane in every sense of the word. It veered off, passed over Block Island and did considerable damage in New England.
By that time, the deaths and damage had mounted over a 1000-mile swath. The hurricane was never named — instead, it is now known as "The Unnamed Hurricane," regurgitated by the same giant mass that swallowed Grace. When it was over, they called her "The Halloween Storm." I had always wanted to write about it, and always regretted I never had the chance.
Someone else beat me to it, and he called it "The Perfect Storm."
As I write this, it's midnight Sunday. The storm is in full fury, and it has some scary gusts. In fact, my snow shovel just went flying by my window. Yet it is apparent it is not the worst storm in 20 years, not even close. It's a good ol' Nor'easter, a little late in the season, but not that late. The lights flicker but stay on. There will be no story for Finn — or for me.