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9.1.14

Are We Ready? Nope.

Charlie Blair, the Edgartown harbor master for the last twenty years, says we can’t imagine what’s coming. Look at the photos of entire towns smeared off the map of coastal New England in 1938, he says. Or the overhead images of the Chicklet-colored fragments left behind by Andrew in South Florida. Or any video of the endless fire-hose blast of a storm surge on YouTube. It’s almost impossible to think of any of that as us.

Blair can. He was five years old, living in a summer house on Katama Bay in Edgartown, when Hurricane Carol slashed the Vineyard on August 31, 1954, sixty years ago this summer. The hurricane struck in the morning, but what Blair noticed was the way the water suddenly drained from the bay out to the Atlantic through an opening in South Beach before the wind really began to howl.

“Fish were actually flapping in the mud. It was awhile when there was no water there,” he said. Then suddenly, while the gale was at its strongest, the water came rushing back in. “And it took all the docks out. Shoved the docks right up through the town, which we didn’t see until after the hurricane was over. The surge was unbelievable, probably about eight to ten feet, about halfway up the cellar steps at our house, which was right on Edgartown Bay Road.”

Carol made landfall along the south coast of central Long Island. But the wind at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport shrieked by at ninety-five miles an hour. Hurricane Bob, the last true hurricane to ravage the Vineyard, came and went in about an hour on August 19, 1991, but Carol moved more slowly, lasted longer, and did much more damage from the waterfront inland.

Blair is waiting for another storm like Carol or the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, which swept Menemsha up into Menemsha Pond. People are in no way ready for what this will look and feel like, he says. “They don’t understand. Look at those pictures of Andrew down in Florida. That’s a hurricane. New Orleans wasn’t. That was a flood. That was because the levees broke – Katrina. But a hurricane? Bare beach! That’s what was left in 1938, and we’re so overdue.”

Read more: Once upon a time it was standard wisdom that the hurricane of 1938 was the first and worst to hit the Island. But hidden in the bottom of coastal marshes, and in old logbooks and newspapers, is the true story of New England hurricanes.

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