Two Extremes

2013-03-20 21:41:29.000 – Ed O’Malley,  Summit Volunteer

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In preparing for this Mt. Washington volunteer week, I effectively went from one extreme of ‘the world’s worst weather’ to another. My small, coastal hometown in New Jersey was one of the areas hardest hit by Superstorm (Hurricane) Sandy in late October. Since then, with the exception of a few short trips, I have been dealing with the aftermath of that storm, both personally, professionally, and as an emergency management volunteer in my town.

It all started on October 29th, 2012, when I first saw ocean water breach the dunes, and start to in front of the house. Later that evening, five feet of ocean water flowed past the back door of my house, moving at an estimated speed of 7 or 8 knots. During the course of the storm, a large hot water heater floated past in the street, and all of this was happening in a town that was practically abandoned (an evacuation order was in place), in pitch blackness (the power had been out throughout the area since sometime that afternoon). Water entered the first floor of my house, and ultimately rose to a level of about one foot. This meant that at the same time, outside, and in the garage, the water was about five feet deep. It was hard to sleep that night, due to the noise caused by the waves lapping against the side of the house.

By sometime Tuesday morning, the water was out of the house, but was still on the front porch, and in the street. By Wednesday morning (which happened to be a nice, clear fall day) the water was out of the street as well. That morning, the police and emergency management officials returned to town, and emergency operations got underway.

In the aftermath of the storm, it has been determined that of the approximately 500 houses in town, almost every one sustained damage, close to half sustained significant damage, and of those, many are a total loss, or simply have vanished, having been washed away by the ocean. In addition, all utilities were knocked out, cars washed away, boats washed away, and the entire landscape of the town has changed. Happily, in my town, and in most of the surrounding towns, no one was killed, and no one was injured.

I’ve been fortunate to be able to spend this past week as a volunteer on the summit, and to experience a very different kind of weather. Mount Washington is often dramatic – high winds, low temperatures, spectacular sunrises, beautiful sunsets, and this time did not disappoint. During this visit, we also were able to see the aurora borealis.

In contrast, though Sandy was extreme, and dramatic, what took place during the height of the storm occurred in total darkness, both due to time of day, and the power outage. As a result, it was far more subtle than it might have been had it occurred in daylight. In my experience, most of the damage was caused by the flood waters – largely silent. Although the wind played a role, it hardly reached hurricane strength, and paled in comparison to the winds that we experience on Mount Washington.

What we witnessed at daybreak the following morning, was anything but subtle. No people in sight, no cars in sight, no animals in sight. No wind. No insects. Nothing. Near complete silence. The only sound was the crash and roar of the ocean in the background. Dunes gone, houses gone, roads gone, utility poles gone. The town (which is located on a barrier island) was divided into separate islands by three breaches, or inlets, that cut through the town. Much in the way one is isolated on the summit of Mt. Washington in winter, my town was cut off from the mainland for some time after the storm.

At this point, more than four months after the storm, a lot of progress has been made. Utilities have been restored. Roads have been rebuilt. Breaches have been filled. And, just a few weeks ago, a handful of residents were able to move back into their homes, claiming the distinction of the first people to live in town since the storm.

We have a come a long way, and still have a long way to go. The town will never be the same, but it will return, stronger than ever.

If you live in an area that was affected by Sandy, I wish you well, and hope that you, your family, and town are well on their way to recovering from the aftermath of this terrible storm.

Meanwhile, as I write this, Mt. Washington’s extreme weather continues unabated – high winds, blowing snow, and temperatures of about one degree above zero.

Stay warm, wherever you are!

 

Ed O’Malley,  Summit Volunteer

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