Journal of the No-Name Storm

Also known as “the Perfect Storm”

The following is an excerpt from Susan Beegel’s diary of the October 30 storm of 1991. It is a personal account of the weather and her world as it washed around her ten years ago. Susan and her husband Wes Tiffney live at the University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station, located on Nantucket Harbor, next to Quaise marsh. The beach house is a little building by the harbor that Stephen Peabody built for his fall duck hunting. Wes and Susan lived there when first married, but at the time of the storm were high and dry in a second-floor apartment up the Field Station road: the beach house was then and is now the station’s main office. In her journal, Susan men-tions Doug Beattie, who was facilities manager at the UMass Nantucket Field Station, and his wife Karen Combs Beattie. Doug’s boat is Frances, a beautiful scal-loping workboat he built himself. 

Monday, 28 October 1991
North wind comes up with a bang in the night; I wake up to lock rattling windows. In the morning the harbor is creamy with whitecaps, the sky full of scudding clouds. Blows hard, a living gale, as hard as thirty-five knots. They say fifteen- to twenty-foot seas out on the Banks. It’s cold. Wind strips last of leaves from trees; they blow into drifts. Flags snap frantically, will be stretched, snapped to tatters.

Today gives us a first taste of winter, but this weather pattern seems to be stuck here because of a hurricane menacing Bermuda. One seasonal chap in the store today was returning to Palm Beach. “Who’d want to stay here now?” he says, red-nosed, wearing a shirt over a sweatshirt, hood up. Me.

Tuesday, 29 October 1991
Awake this morning to continuing wind and the weather radio. Hurricane Grace, a huge low-pressure area off Bermuda, is pulling down cold air from a high-pressure area over Quebec — gale-force winds to continue today and intensify to storm force tomorrow. No boat yesterday, none today, none tomorrow — Wes and I head for the grocery store. Sign in the produce section reads “No boat, no bananas.”

Because this storm brings us northeast winds, onshore for the Field Station, it is more threatening in some ways than a hurricane, posing the threat of flood-ing to the beach house. It is the new moon and there are astronomically high tides as well. At low tide the marsh looks like a normal high. There is a carpet of white behind the dune — more gulls than I can count resting out of the wind. They are preening and napping; the area behind them is white with bits of escaped down trapped in the grass. Now, with an hour and a half to high tide, there is no beach, no grass visible in the marsh, only a strip of dune between us and the har-bor. We have prepared the beach house for flooding, unplugging things, shutting off the power, picking up carpets and moving furniture off the porch, which is lower than the rest of the building. . . .

Downtown there are lots of muscle-bound deep-sea scallopers tied up at the docks to ride it out, mayhem among the boats remaining in the boat basin; there is an on-shore wind there too. Already there are some pretty sailboats on the beach and rubbing up against the con-dos; frantic men in waders, wind screaming in rigging, sails coming unfurled. The Coast Guard channel at home tells us there are fishing vessels in trouble. They are getting a helicopter to take men off one, talking to another with a hairline crack in the hull but pumps keeping up (“What color are your life jackets?”), trying to come alongside another in heavy seas so that a man can leap from his boat onto a Coast Guard vessel.

Wednesday, 30 October 1991
Wake this morning at 5 A.M.—high tide. Wes checks the beach house. Water is about one foot from the doorstep. It’s blowing a gale and we expect the storm to intensify. After coffee we go out on erosion patrol. It’s wild—surf overwashing the barrier beach and flowing into Sesachacha Pond. At Hoick’s Hollow, the surf is terrific, giant waves impacting the foot of Sankaty Bluff. Wes says it’s cut almost vertical; there will be active ero-sion there. Wind is blowing so hard—Force 10 on the Beaufort—it’s hard for me to walk, shoved and stag-gered by gusts. It’s hard to breathe facing into the wind—you can’t exhale, but if you can relax your lungs and open your mouth they will inflate all by themselves. Blowing sand is painful; salt stings my eyes. We stop at Sankaty Lighthouse, but there is so much sand blowing there it would be foolhardy to get out of the car, fool-hardy to linger in the car if you like your paint job. A parked little red station wagon is white with salt and sand; it’ll be ruined. From the bank at ’Sconset, the surf is spectacular, house-high and impacting on the dunes, mountainous out on the shoals. Wes calls them haystacks.

We go to town. Washington Street and Hulbert Avenue are flooded in places, lots of boats are aground, some sorry soul salvaging a needlepoint cushion and a garbage bag full of papers from one. This northeast wind direction is deadly for Nantucket Harbor; this will be worse than a hurricane for boats.

We see a gannet over the harbor and now one over the saltmarsh — something I’ve never seen before. Gannets are huge, snow-white diving birds with black-tipped wings and a seven-foot wing span. They cannot fly without the crest of a wave and a gust of wind to bear them aloft, and so live most of their lives at sea, breeding on cliffs. You can sometimes see them diving (from the air, sending up fountains of spray) off the ocean beaches, but never over the calm and sheltered waters of the harbor.

Lights flickering — a power failure seems a real pos-sibility, especially with all the salt that’s being driven into the transformers. We do the drill of filling tubs, buckets, pots and pans. We turned down the tempera-ture in the fridge and freezer. No sign of our friend Doug today. We call: his fishing boat Frances broke loose from her mooring, is half-sunk and aground. He does not know the extent of the damage, but the motor is under water, and the start of scalloping season two days away.

4:35 P.M. This is now a disaster journal. I went to work [at Mitchell’s Book Corner] in the wind; at 3 P.M. a policeman came in and said we were to close the store immediately and go home. A state of emergency has been declared. On the way back, water from the salt-marsh is up over the Polpis Road.

Wes and I drive to the beach house. Must wade to the back door, water to knees, full of debris —  still two and a half hours to high tide. The front porch is already flooded, waves and weeds lapping at the windows. We pull books, records, papers, and slides off the bottom shelves —  there is no doubt now the main part will be flooded. We pray the windows don’t break. There is a mouse on the front porch, running frantically around, pawing at the windows. . . .

Going back to the car the water is over my knees. From our apartment window we watch huge, ocean-sized breakers rolling down the harbor, the dune going under, trees and beach stairs floating into the marsh, half-drowned headlights of cars trying to cross by the Lifesaving Museum and all the while the tide is rising, rising. . . . The wind is blowing hard enough to shake the house and rattle my wedding crystal in the china cabinet. Doug and Karen say downtown is badly flooded; rumor has it the power is out because the Electric Company is flooded. Martha’s Vineyard radio — our old friend from Hurricane Bob — says conditions will be the same or worse until midnight with winds in the 70s, low hurricane force. This is a rare and vicious oceanic storm. No boat, no bananas indeed. Don’t know how long we’ll be without power and heat. Fortunately it’s not that cold.

At last light, waves higher than the beach house are rolling down the harbor, pouring over the dunes. Wes says this is a textbook storm surge.

8:50 P.M. We endure a pounding; the power comes back on, though spikey. Wes goes down to check the beach house in the dark; storm has been raging so fiercely we don’t know whether the house is still there, or if it has been undercut and collapsed. He returns more uncertain — road is full of debris, unsafe to walk in the dark, stuff more than fifty yards up the road from the house.

11 P.M. Go out in the dark, wind, and rain — it’s hard to walk — and climb down the bank to the beach since the road is impassable. Beach house is still stand-ing. A windrow of sand and debris in front of the build-ing protected it somewhat, although at half tide we have water breaking where it has never broken before. The water seems to be draining away nicely and the wind has dropped. We have to stand in the breaking surf to inspect the house with flashlights; I have to hold on to Wes to stand up in the wind and waves. We return with soaked pants and boots full of water.

Thursday, 31 October
Up at dawn after a restless night. . . . Gulp coffee and a handful of cookies and go down to see what’s left. The debris is stunning: fifty yards up the road from the house we encounter eelgrass, snow fencing, uprooted shrubs, shoes, boards, bailers, tennis balls, whiskey bot-tles, Gatorade bottles, miniature liquor bottles, our doorstep (with the doormat still on it), two complete sets of beach stairs, parts of a neighbor’s bulkhead, high-tide bush, dead trees, stumps, pieces of a bench, an outboard motor, a paddle, a laundry detergent bottle, an uprooted daffodil plant, buoys, pieces of a styrofoam cooler, a fragmented fish trap, a rose bush with the rose hips still on it, a dead gull, the inevitable beer can, plastic motor oil containers, and a “No Trespassing” sign. On the harbor side, debris is piled hip high against the front windows, and all of it soaking wet, treacherously slippery, with a fine clay-like mud covering. The outside walls of the beach house are wet and covered with eel grass as high as my chest.

With some trepidation, we pick our way through the debris — lots of it extruding rusty nails — clear the garbage away from the back door, and go in. There is good news, and there is bad news. The front and back porch floors are coated with mud — slick, brown, and wet like a fresh coat of paint. There is eel grass on the walls. The heating units, the radiators, the broiler unit of the stove, and the refrigerator motor have all been under water. In the main room, slightly higher than the porches, the wall-to-wall carpet and Wes’s own rug on top of it are soaking wet. The room is icy cold and dank. Waterlines on the furniture legs show it flooded about three to four inches in height. In the kitchen, the lower shelves of the cabinets flooded. The little mouse that was trying so frantically to escape the porch yester-day, has drowned. I feel guilty. . . . But the good news is overwhelming. The building is intact, and although the heating, wiring, carpeting, and fridge may need to be replaced, Wes’s books, files, slides, notes, and reprints are safe. . . .

So we take a deep breath and think about what we can tackle. The first thing to do is get the mud off the floor before it dries. We open a window on the front porch and Wes runs in a hose. He hoses down the floor; I mop. He hoses down the walls, too. We rip up the threshold so we can push the muddy water out the door. In the kitchen, the floor slopes the wrong way, so I bail muddy water into a wastebasket and fling it out the window. The hose will not reach the back porch. There I take the hand-held unit of the shower, and after rinsing the mud and seaweed out of the shower itself, hose down the walls and the floor. There is no way to get a vehicle to the house because of the debris. Bob Caldwell arrives and says he knows a guy with a truck and a front-end loader.

I go to town to get boxes for books and papers so that we can begin to move things out. Washington Street is cordoned off, as is Easy Street. But I go out on Straight Wharf where the bricks are rumpled and mer-chants are putting merchandise out on the sidewalk to dry or be carted away. At the pet store there are piles of cute china dog dishes and leashes on the sidewalk; a distraught looking woman is wringing out T-shirts. But North Wharf is the real scene of devastation. There are three or four cottages missing. All that is left are boards floating in the water; and, on the dock, a pile of boards, bricks, mattresses, appliances, and one intact dormer. I think one or two of the missing cottages were in Nantucket Homes and Gardens. But George Andrews’s dilapidated old shack, the only one still used for fishing, is still standing there, triumphant and enduring. And George, in his oilers, is collecting a pair of oars from out of the floating debris. I feel better.

After a day of clean-up, I get in the car with Wes and go to do a preliminary inspection of erosion in the rain. At Quidnet, the dune breached, and an absolute iver of sand flowed down the road. From the garage of the Egers’ house, last on the road, comes the sound of shoveling — it all must have flowed into their garage. At Sesachacha, there is a huge delta of sand stretching far into the pond. At the height of the storm, the surf roared right across the Polpis Road. The road was undermined and collapsed in one place. There are all manner of little boats — Sailfish and Sunfish —trapped in the bushes at the edge of the pond, left there when the tide went out. At the Sankaty Beach Club, there has been tremendous erosion; there are only a few feet to go before the boardwalk goes over. A hedge that was there yesterday is nowhere in sight. At the light-house, the fence is over. Chappy Krauthof’s house is within inches. The bluff is so steep it must retreat more to reach angle of repose.

It’s getting dark so we drive into town. Washington Street is open now, although parts of it are still flooded. Sayle’s Seafood’s sign is leaning against a building more than a block from the store. The houses have toppled fences, mangled porches and arbors, and broken win-dows. There is a huge sailboat crushing a sign that says “No Parking This Side.”

And what of Halloween? I spot a tiny masked goblin sitting in the car beside a tense and white-lipped moth-er. A tinier Tinkerbell in a rainslicker, visiting Mitchell’s, her tinseled pink mask sparkling in the light from the shop windows, a cheerful sight in the foggy drizzling dusk.

Before dinner we call Doug. Frances was flung up from the bottom of the harbor and carried inland, stranded on someone’s lawn. The propellers of a boat that landed next to her chewed up her side, but the hull is intact. With $200 of parts, Doug replaced her electri-cals and got the motor running.

Friday, 1 November 1991
I never understood before why coastal flooding places people’s homes at risk of burning down. Basically, if you leave the power on, it’s like dropping a toaster into the bathtub — only in this case your house is the toast-er. Wes calls an electrician at 7:30 A.M., Dave Dunham. The circuitry in the beach house is okay — because we cut the power before the flood, we have not shorted out, and the transformer boxes were above the water line. Dave is able to give us heat in the living room and opens our transformer boxes to dry. It’s no go on the porch where the water was so much deeper — Dave turns on a heater and it shorts instantly, sparks and smoke. He disconnects it and says he’ll have more heat-ing elements coming on the boat next week, then rides off to help others. Our hero! We have heat, and we can plug in fans and a dehumidifier. Exhilaration! Now we can get dry.

I worry about the rug we dragged out into the rain; how will we ever get it dry and clean? I call Holdgate’s for advice — they say bring it in wet, and they will dry it, wash it, and dry it again. Very accommodating of them to accept room-sized wet rugs. In return, we must accept a blank bill; they charge to clean rugs by the pound, and very obligingly are going to dry the rug (it takes two people to carry it wet) before weighing it.

First chance to really look at our beach. In one place the dune looks to have been pushed back by a gigantic bulldozer. The beach is broad now, flat as a pancake and beautifully sandy where before it was sloped and rocky, shelly. No storm-wrack line, either — that is on the other side of the Polpis Road, where the water flowed over into the high marsh. Wes proposes yelling at people to stay off the dunes because the exposed roots of the Ammophila are vulnerable. We want that dune reestablished as quickly as possible.

Beach is littered with scallops and the gulls are hav-ing a feed. Doug gets Frances jacked up and on a boat trailer. She is parked in the yard. The side that was chewed by the prop looks as if it has been chipped with an axe. The start of scalloping season will be delayed until November 5 because of fuel, sewage, and debris in the harbor. But will there be any scallops? Maybe they have been all washed up for the gulls?

Saturday, 2 November 1991
The sun comes out long enough to dry the road and the debris, Albert Johnsen comes with his front-end loader and takes away a huge truck-load of debris — but only one, because the dump is closed on Saturday after-noons! Not very helpful on the town’s part.

Wes goes up in an airplane with geology students from Northeastern University. He tells me that the Galls are still open, and Great Point is an island. Says “There’s a lot less of Nantucket than there used to be.”

Monday, 4 November
Albert Johnsen arrives again with his front-end loader despite the rain. Final tally: four truckloads of debris. The truck holds about seven cubic yards. Wes says this Saturday, 2 November 1991.

The sun comes out long enough to dry the road and the debris, Albert Johnsen comes with his front-end loader and takes away a huge truck-load of debris — but only one, because the dump is closed on Saturday after-noons! Not very helpful on the town’s part.

Wes goes up in an airplane with geology students from Northeastern University. He tells me that the Galls are still open, and Great Point is an island. Says “There’s a lot less of Nantucket than there used to be.”

Albert Johnsen arrives again with his front-end loader despite the rain. Final tally: four truckloads of debris. The truck holds about seven cubic yards. Wes says this ward side — inside wet furniture, sand on the floor, and a crystal decanter three-quarters full of whiskey on a handsome sideboard. Porch supports broken, tattered screens blowing in the wind, the damaged structure full of sand. Surf crashed through a window in the back of the garage, blowing a boat and garden tools out through the front doors. Barrier beach washed over to the har-bor. At Sankaty Bluff, we observe that the erosion has moved down — more houses are now at risk. Codfish Park has a number of houses undercut by the surf, too.

Friday, 8 November 1991
They say it’s clear nothing so devastating has happened to this community since the Great Fire of 1846. Final toll? Ten homes totally destroyed, 300 homes and busi-nesses badly damaged, 62 boats sunk, millions of dollars damage to the wharves. The Beachside Resort was fully booked for Christmas Stroll but won’t be able to open because they have to rewire. One lobsterman lost 800 out of 1,000 traps — about $25,000 worth.
National Weather Service says another northeaster is coming, with winds at approximately thirty mph. Great! Wes goes out with a Federal Emergency Management Agency consultant. Says he’s glad he did-n’t bring his wife because the weather’s “so awful.” Well, the poor dainty thing!

I see an ad in the New York Times magazine for condos in the Caribbean. It says “Enjoy Island Living and Everything That Goes with the Territory.” I clip that out and stick it on the refrigerator.

Susan Beegel has been a year-round island resident since 1983. A trustee of the Nantucket Atheneum and the Maria Mitchell Science Center, she holds a Ph.D. in English from Yale University, teaches “Literature of the Sea” in the Williams College Maritime Studies Program at Mystic Seaport, and is a member of the NHA’s editorial committee.

This article is from Historic Nantucket Fall 2001, read the entire issue here

 

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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