The Storm that Eats the Jersey Shore (continued)
Molecules of air, rising and sinking and spinning and sliding, that’s what makes weather, storms, hurricanes. Air rises when it is heated, sinks when it cools, spins because the Earth spins, slides because not every point on Earth spins at the same speed.
The heated air of the tropics rises steadily. Since warm air is less dense than cold, it creates a band of low pressure, called the equatorial trough. As it flows toward the poles, it cools. Some of it descends at about forty degrees north latitude, creating a band of high pressure. (Forty degrees north latitude slices New Jersey at about Toms River.) Most of it continues on to the polar regions where it drops down, gains weight, and begins its journey back to the tropics.
All this rising and falling air creates disequilibrium in the atmosphere. Since the forces of nature always move toward equilibrium, air shifts about to equalize things, flowing from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. This constant circulation of hot air rising up from the middle of the Earth and of cold air flowing down from the poles to take its place is one of the determining factors in the planet’s weather.
But obviously not the only one, else we would have only winds flowing north high above Earth and south at its surface. (These wind directions would be reversed, of course, in the southern hemisphere.) That leaves a lot of winds unaccounted for.
Winds are movements of air relative to the Earth, but the rotation of the Earth puts a spin on things. A person on the equator is moving through space at about 1,000 miles per hour. (The circumference of the Earth is about 24,000 miles and any point on it makes a complete revolution every 24 hours.) At the north pole, however, the spin velocity is zero. (At Toms River, it’s about 770 miles per hour.) Since air has weight, the spinning Earth drags it along, so air moving at 1,000 miles per hour as it rises from the equator is going to meet air moving a lot more slowly as it heads north. The result is something like merging traffic on the turnpike: Some speed up, some slow down, and there are inevitable collisions.
There’s another result of Earth’s rotation, called the Coriolis effect for the man who first figured it out. From the equator, a stone heaved toward the North Pole would not land due north but northeast because Earth’s velocity changes with latitude. While the stone was moving eastward at 1,000 miles an hour, the earth under it say Toms River if you’ve got a good arm was only moving east at 770 miles an hour, so it wouldn’t have caught up with the stone yet; the stone would land east of Toms River. A stone hurled from the North Pole, however, would land to the west, again because of differing velocities. That’s what happens to the winds, too: Winds coming up from the tropics or down from the arctic tend to veer to the right.
There are other things that complicate the movement of winds and thus, weather. One is the uneven distribution of land masses and open seas. Most of the land on Earth is north of the equator, most of the water south. Land and water absorb and release heat at different rates, more slowly for water in both transfers, which is why land near water is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
Land also contains various features that influence the temperature and deflect winds such as cities and forests and mountains. The sea’s varying temperatures have an effect on air, too, and the sea contributes by far the majority of water vapor in the air. Mountains often regulate how much of that gets dumped as precipitation, and where; so do deserts.
Moisture is a major factor in determining weather. The amount of moisture a given piece of air can hold depends on its temperature and pressure. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air; dense air more than lighter air. Relative humidity is the ratio of how much moisture the air does hold to how much it could hold at that temperature and pressure. A relative humidity of 25 percent means a given parcel of air is holding only one-quarter of the amount it could be holding. As the temperature or the pressure falls, the relative humidity increases until the air cannot hold the moisture, which condenses to form clouds. The point of temperature and pressure where this occurs is the dew point.
As moisture condenses, it releases the heat that had kept it in a gaseous state. This heat helps lift the air molecules higher into even cooler altitudes where more water vapor condenses. Eventually, these droplets combine into drops heavy enough to be pulled down by gravity.
Falling raindrops can evaporate again into water vapor, a phenomenon called vertigo. Radar registers precipitation, but an observer sees only a large cloud, its base clearly visible. Hanging from it like a ragged veil blown sideways by the wind is a dark mass not quite reaching the ground. It’s rain, evanescing in midfall.
A tanker laden with crude from the Mideast’s oil fields makes its way across the Atlantic on a heading for Dry Tortugas at the end of the Florida Keys. The captain sees a squall ahead, like a gray broom sweeping the surface of the sea. As the rain spatters his decks, he notes a slight drop in barometric pressure registering on his “glass” still called that, although the glass tubes of mercury were long ago replaced by aneroid barometers that work by the pressure of the air squeezing a sensitive bellows. Around him, other squalls dimple the surface of the sea.
The tanker is following a route taken by almost every sailing ship since the days of Columbus, the route of the trade winds. These blow out of the northeast in a band between ten degrees and twenty degrees above the equator. The trades got their name not from the commerce that followed this path from the Old World to the New but from a Middle English word meaning “path.”
The path became, in fact, a highway, because the trades are the steadiest and most reliable of all the winds that fan the face of the Earth. They are the product of two weather makers, a midlatitude high pressure system and the Coriolis effect. The Bermuda high stretches from its namesake all the way across to the Azores. Winds move around its rim in a clockwise direction. The Coriolis effect helps low-level winds blow westward on their way to the equator. Over open water of fairly uniform temperature, with little to deflect them, they could be counted on to move a sailing ship at a predictable pace and direction.
These are the northeast trades, labeled, as all winds are, for the direction they come from. Below the equator, the trades blow from the southeast. These two trades run into each other above the equator, an encounter that might be imagined to create a zone of violent meteorological conflict colliding winds, tossing waters, confused currents.
In fact, this area is the doldrums, a band of listless air known to becalm sailing ships for days, even weeks. In scientific terms it’s called the Intertropical Convergence Zone, which shifts north and south during the year but in the summer lies at about ten degrees north latitiude, just along the equatorial trough. As the trade winds near the equator, they warm and rise, thus avoiding a head-on crash but creating an unstable environment full of random encounters with uncertain outcomes. Winds blow now from this quarter, now from that. Storms form and dissolve and re-form. Sailors have always hated the doldrums for their unpredictability.
It is here that swirls of air and whiffs of cloud become hurricane seedlings.
A satellite positioned over the Atlantic registers the parade of cotton balls moving eastward through the equatorial trough. A seedling that maintains its grouping of clouds for forty-eight hours gets a number and becomes a tropical disturbance. Most will dissipate. Of the hundred or so that form between June and November, an average of twenty-four will become tropical depressions. Eight will become tropical storms. Four will become hurricanes. At the National Hurricane Center in Miami, meteorologists watch the progression and wonder, which?
Among them is #89, the bunch of clouds that spilled some of its cargo on the farmer in the Sahel, that sent the fisherman heading home, that loosed squalls around the oil tanker. Like dancers auditioning for a spot in the show, each cluster struts its stuff. Any one of them, the meteorologists know, could play the part. All hold warm, moist air. All move across the sea at about 10 to 15 miles per hour, slow enough to gather up moisture but fast enough to keep from dissipating. It usually takes about a week to make the passage from Africa.
Some clouds grow quickly, rearing magnificent heads high, carrying warm, moist air thirty thousand feet into the sky, becoming thunderstorms. But the meteorologists, like Broadway impresarios, are looking for that something extra, that spin that distinguishes a star from a chorus girl.
A storm runs on the heat energy released by condensing water vapor as it rises. Air cools at the rate of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit per one thousand feet of rise. In a mature hurricane, the temperature can go from 80 degrees at the bottom to minus 125 degrees at the top. This severe difference also adds to the updraft because heat, following another of nature’s urges toward equilibrium, always flows from the warmer body to the colder.
To stay alive a storm must maintain this cycle. That means not only more air flowing in at the bottom but also a high altitude wind to carry off the exiting air at the top; otherwise the warm air collects and forms an inversion that plugs the chimney. Meteorologists call this “filling the storm,” but in fact, the moist air in the column drains out the sides and the storm collapses.
At this stage, #89 is still a haphazard collection of forces operating somewhat at random. To advance to the next stage, it’s got to get organized. The organizing factor is spin winds spiraling toward the center to mold the elements into a coherent structure, each part strengthening the other until the storm needs only a stretch of warm water to sustain it, and often not even that. But first it needs spin.
To acquire that spin requires stepping out of the marching order and climbing up the latitude ladder into the ballroom of the trades, where partners are waiting to give it a whirl. The westward-moving trades impart a counter-clockwise spin. Once it gets spinning faster than 39 miles per hour it officially becomes a tropical storm, and a tropical storm really gets the attention of the watchers in Miami. A tropical storm is just one step below a hurricane.
But making the grade is tough. Given the insistent dynamics that develop almost daily during the season, hurricane watchers have always wondered why more storms don’t become hurricanes. Nature prefers equilibrium its famous balance and a good hurricane is a good way of redistributing energy. Yet the translation rate is only 4 percent. It seems that nature has other ways of keeping its balance, less dramatic, less violent but suitable. Hurricanes serve nature the way privateers served Queen Elizabeth I: They get the job done but they’re not quite respectable. And, of course, they can’t be trusted.
As if to impose some sort of discipline, nature has a policeman on station, the Bermuda high. Reaching eight miles up into the atmosphere, it is big and strong and stable and it keeps the equatorial trough in place and the parade of easterly waves generally neat and even. But even this huge system wavers now and then, and when it lets down its guard, hurricanes happen.
Number 89, carrying the molecules of air it collected over Africa, the moisture it has sucked up from the Atlantic, the warmth it has steadily absorbed, breaks through the barrier. Its spinning winds surpass 39 miles per hour and continue to build. Warm, moisture-laden air rises higher and higher, shedding rain as it goes, releasing more heat which pumps it even higher. The chimney is open at the top and the cold air spills out to be carried off by high winds, eventually to sink again to the surface of the sea where it warms, gathers moisture and re-enters the cycle.
The meteorologists study their data, wish they had more. The Bermuda high appears to have taken a walk around the corner. The storm has a clear course over a warm sea with a following wind. They pin a name on it Gabriel, the seventh of the season and put out an advisory.
Gabriel, out of Africa, over the Atlantic, collects its winds. It is a moving force that towers fifty thousand feet, but a tower that can still be toppled. Below it, the seas churn and give up more moisture. As it grows, it expands outward. Bands of clouds spiral inward, framing successive areas of updraft. There are now several feeding channels that support the storm like flying buttresses. And somewhere out there over the equatorial Atlantic it opens its eye. Its winds cross the 74 mile-per-hour mark and it becomes Hurricane Gabriel.
The eye can be seen clearly by the satellite, seen and tracked. In Miami, the computers digest data, plot several possibilities. The watchers assess each, ponder the most likely, ask for more data.
Gabriel moves toward the Caribbean like a living thing smelling food. The dabs of islands seem hopelessly inadequate to keep it from the vast basin of warm water beyond. The storm now reaches up sixty thousand feet, to the threshold of the stratosphere. The last bits of moisture in the rising air freeze into ice crystals to form thin cirrus clouds that spread out from the top of the eye. To the satellite, the storm resembles a miniature galaxy.
The winds lash the sea until it spits back foam and spray. It is as if the storm is impatient with the simple process of evaporation alone. Gabriel has become a monster that feels its power, seeks more insatiable, unstoppable.
But it is a monster without a mind. It cannot go where it pleases. Despite the personification that naming it has engendered, it has no will of its own. It must go where it is steered. The steering influence can be a high wind that pulls it along by its top. There are rivers of air in the atmosphere, and a storm can get caught in one like a jellyfish in the Gulf Stream. There can be a shift in pressure to form a gradient, like a slope down which it can slide.
But there is an immediate concern that absorbs the attention of the watchers in the ready room. Gabriel has paused. Still six hundred miles from landfall, it sits, turning in place. It is eerily like a field marshal surveying the battleground, deciding where to deploy, to advance, to strike. It seems to be in no hurry, for nothing on the shores that stretch before it is capable of opposing it.
And then it moves, or is moved, no longer toward the Caribbean but northward, toward Florida. The National Hurricane Center issues a hurricane alert.
Florida is used to hurricanes. Shutters go up, water is bottled, flashlight batteries are checked, canned food laid in. People gather up patio furniture and bicycles and toys. Cars are gassed up to be ready for evacuation. Radios are tuned to catch news reports.
Gabriel is a celebrity.
The storm turns again and begins to head back out to sea, a phenomenon familiar to hurricane plotters. They even have a name for it recurvature. As a hurricane approaches the East Coast, complications arise. After sailing unopposed across open water for several days, riding a groove, feeding on the warm sea like a cow grazing in a meadow, it suddenly faces an environment not nearly as hospitable, one pocked with high and low pressures, shot through with conflicting winds, subject to wide runs of temperature.
A great current of air, part of the jet stream, can catch a hurricane and carry it off to the northeast, over cooler waters where it cannot feed. Its center, no longer a chimney, fills with clouds which empty themselves back into the sea. The hurricane becomes a scattering of squalls. Momentum keeps the winds going for a while until they subside, again, into jostling molecules of air. Its effects continue a bit longer, the great waves it raised evening out into swells that troop toward shore to delight surfers and dismay property owners. Photographers shrug, and everybody in Florida takes down the shutters and puts the flashlights back in their drawers and wonders what to do with all that canned hash.
But Gabriel is not so quickly done. In its pause it has gained greater strength. New walls of clouds spread out like buttresses. It now spans five hundred miles. Winds circle in howls. The updraft almost sucks the water out of the sea. The hurricane absorbs other storms that had followed along down the equatorial trough, taking them into itself, adding their power to its own.
A hurricane hunter plane goes up, a handful of men whose protection against this giant is a thin skin of aluminum and their skills. To gather the data Miami needs, they must go in low, from seven hundred to one hundred feet. A strong enough downdraft could knock the plane into the sea before it had time to recover, but the air deflecting off the swells acts as a cushion and the plane bounces up again.
This trip is what they call a “hairy hop.” A hurricane has been estimated to produce the energy of four hundred 20-megaton hydrogen bombs in one day. If converted to electric power, it could supply all the United States’ needs for six months and it releases this amount every day for a week. Spread evenly over its realm, such fury might be manageable. But although the hurricane occupies about one million cubic miles of the atmosphere, most of its energy is compacted in the twisting bands the plane must cross.
Instruments record sustained winds of 157 miles per hour, with gusts up to 200. Winds that speed have taken a sheet of newspaper and driven it through the trunk of a tree. Passing through the fringes of the storm, the plane absorbs downdrafts that push it toward the reaching waves below, then whooshing updrafts that threaten to tumble it. The greatest danger is the torrential rain which crowds visibility up against the windows and falls on the plane like cannonballs.
And the plane bursts through the eye wall, the innermost circle of clouds, and into the eye itself, a startlingly inappropriate, awesomely beautiful, eerily serene realm of peace and grandeur.
There are scientific explanations for the eye of a hurricane. Tornadoes also have hollow cores. So does the twisting water draining out of a bathtub. Wind or water must achieve a certain speed relative to its size and weight. Once it is spinning, the Coriolis effect, which draws it tighter, is countered by centrifugal force, which wants to pull it apart. But scientific explanations seem irrelevant to those who have been inside a hurricane’s eye.
It has been likened to a cathedral with sacred carvings on the walls, stately balconies protruding, even pipe organs reaching to the clear, blue dome above. It has been described as a great cavern, the shapes of the circling clouds like some fantastic formations of rock, but not solid shifting, merging one into another, changing shape and even color. One hurricane hunter compared it to the center of a big city, a Times Square in the air where cloud towers loom, each reflecting a different piece of the sky. Another described it as being in the middle of Yankee Stadium during the World Series.
The men in the plane gaze out on this vast central room in the house of Gabriel, their duties stalled in the spectacle of it, a palace in the heavens. “You almost expected to see the gods come through the walls,” one says later. But it is they who go through the walls again, into the relentless churn of the storm, taking its temperature, its pressure, recording its winds, measuring its rains, drawing its profile and sending the data back to the lab where they will be analyzed to determine Gabriel’s health and, so far as is possible, its prognosis, as well as add to the knowledge that gives, each time, more insight into the anatomy of hurricanes.
As they leave the arms of Gabriel and head back to the base, they are unaware of forces that the watchers in Miami view with growing alarm. Nature’s policeman, the Bermuda high, has returned to its post above the mid-Atlantic. But its partner, the high that patrols North America, has shifted in its turn, moving east. Now, lying between the two highs, is a narrow road that runs right up the East Coast, and Gabriel, like a blind man groping for a way out of a maze, has found it.
Most hurricanes never make it to the North American continent. They curve away, as if repelled by the wrong end of a meteorological magnet, and vent their awesome force instead on the forgiving sea. When they do make landfall, the havoc they wreak is like nothing else on Earth. Earthquakes have vastly more impact in the few seconds or minute or two they rend the ground. Tornadoes pack more fury into their single punches. But nothing comes close to matching a hurricane for power, because it feeds as it goes, getting larger and stronger, and the larger and stronger it gets the more it can feed. It is like some science fiction created to scare children, or an ancient myth about the beast that could not be slain.
Hurricanes do die, of course. Somewhat like dinosaurs, they die when their environment changes. They cannot adapt. They die when the sea beneath them gets too cold to supply them with moisture. They die when a massive inversion puts a lid on the chimney called the eye. They die over land, eventually. Friction slows them, mountains wound them, cold air unbalances them; they fill up or fall over or just fizzle out. These are natural causes, as seemingly random as those which form them. But there is nothing anyone has been able to do so far that can even slow down a hurricane or change its course, much less stop one.
Attempts have been made. In 1947, researchers decided to try seeding the eye wall with silver iodide crystals to make the clouds dump their rain at sea, break up, allow the heat to seep out, dissipate. Results were promising but inconclusive. In one of the experiments, the storm turned and inundated the coast of Georgia. The seeding was blamed, and the experiments were halted.
There have been proposals to anchor icebergs in the path of the storms coming across the ocean, to pump colder water up from the depths, or to spread a monomolecular layer of hexadecanol, a kind of oil, on the sea’s surface to reduce evaporation. That last, it was estimated, would take a fleet of thirty C-130 cargo planes flying almost wing to wing. It was once seriously suggested that atomic bombs be detonated within the eye, but the chances of one such explosion or a dozen having any effect on a force equal to hundreds of thousands of such explosions seemed too remote to risk scattering radioactive fallout through a million cubic miles of atmosphere.
All that can be done, so far, is watch, and warn.
Alerts go out. All along the coast, the familiar double red-and-black flags go up. People secure their boats, take in trash cans, welcome mats, dog houses. But only a few board up their windows or store water or put matches in waterproof containers or get out the candles or do the other things the National Weather Service advises. With the exception of North Carolina’s Outer Banks and, of course, Florida, few parts of the eastern seaboard have ever experienced a direct hit by a hurricane; most hurricanes pass offshore, sending a lot of wind and rain and high waves, usually no more than from a good northeaster and often a good deal less.
|So when one does turn off the sea track and comes onto land in Georgia or Virginia or New Jersey, it’s more like a meteor landing than a storm. There is little preparation and the area is devastated.
Gabriel is on the move, heading north.
The watchers in Miami tap their computers. Will it stay offshore? Where’s the jet stream? Is it low enough to blow Gabriel’s head off? How strong is the North American high? Any spot there Gabriel could breech? Is there a polar trough nearby that might cut into it? Can the prevailing westerlies wrestle it out to sea?
The hurricane has built up great momentum. No one in Miami dares sleep or could if they tried. Realization of the ground-pounding power of a hurricane charges them with the task of examining any clue about the storm’s direction. The impact of some hurricanes when they hit the East Coast has been detected on seismographs in California.
These are dedicated people, working, they know, on only a fraction of the knowledge they need to give adequate and timely warning. Sound the alarm too early and be responsible for widespread evacuation, incalculable costs in time and work lost as well as the massive expenses of emergency preparation that may all prove unnecessary? Sound it too late and wonder, later, what deaths might have been avoided? They scan readouts, wish they had another satellite, send out another plane, try out scenarios on their computers, and keep their fingers close to the alarm buttons.
But it is also wildly exhilarating, the way a war can be, but without any agonizing questions of morality. The forces of nature still stir feelings that link humans directly, through some deep channel in the collective subconscious, to ancient ancestors, those who walked naked under skies that were the playing fields of the gods, who crouched beneath trees and behind rocks and inside caves as the air about them shrieked and the seas were flung about and the forests torn apart. There is still an awe that a hurricane taps like nothing else can. Churches report an upsurge in both attendance and membership after a hurricane passes.
Gabriel has picked up forward speed, from 15 to 22 miles per hour. The computers digest this, explore the ramifications among their 1s and 0s. A hurricane moving too quickly over its feedlot cannot pick up enough moisture to sustain itself. Without the rising columns of energy, it will collapse. Some become extratropical cyclones that expand, move up the coast at 50 miles an hour and deliver enough of a punch to take out Connecticut, but it’s a dying blow. Whatever is pushing Gabriel is not pushing hard enough to accelerate it to obliteration; it moves with the deliberate pace of a Greek tragedy.
The central, whirling bands of wind have puckered the pliant ocean into hills that mimic the solid earth beyond. But these hills are insubstantial creations that at once seek equilibrium again, cresting, flattening, joining until they escape the winds and smooth out into long swells that run before the hurricane, heralds to announce its coming. They travel at half the speed of the winds that generated them. They will come ashore at the rate of four to six per minute, half the rate of normal waves but with far greater amplitude and force.
The satellite routinely flashes its images back to Miami. On-screen, the swirls of cirrus clouds the hurricane flings out in long, spiraling spumes could be some sort of decoration the planet is wearing, perhaps to mark its rank or to signal a change in the seasons. To the watchers, it means that Gabriel is still thriving. Successive pictures show it climbing the latitudes like a ratcheted wheel.
The hurricane has sent its outer winds against the shores of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, its rains as far inland as the foothills of the Appalachians, its storm swells across the Outer Banks of North Carolina. But it has remained out to sea by 170 miles. The elbow of the Outer Banks, Cape Hatteras, lies directly in its path. There is no doubt: if it stays on track it will cross these thin islands called barrier beaches in what must seem like hopeless braggadocio for a line of sand dunes which change dimensions from year to year even without hurricanes.
The alarm is sounded; a hurricane watch is announced, naming the time and place.
Some of these islands are connected to the mainland by only one bridge, some only by ferry. Some are not connected to the mainland at all but to another island. But vacation season is over, and the thousands who spread themselves over these sands in the summer have receded like the tide, leaving only the resorts’ caretakers and a few late fishermen.
And a strew of cottages, thousands and thousands that weren’t here the last time a hurricane scraped these islands clean. Some top the dunes, some perch on stilts, some nestle by the one road that runs the length of the archipelago. All look about as substantial as the castles children make out of Popsicle sticks on the summer beaches.
To come ashore is usually death for a hurricane, though in its death throes it deals death in turn. Over land it can find no food. The irregular landscape tears at it. It must use precious energy to overcome the friction of trees and buildings and hills. The bottom of the tower slows down, the top outruns it, and it stumbles, like a runner who has just gone from cinders to sand. Some regain their feet, in a sense, no longer hurricanes but powerful storms still that manage to keep their flailing limbs together enough for a run across country. Here any ambient low can help them. Some have even crossed the Appalachians and gone as far as Chicago, home of winds, and out onto the Great Lakes. Others have traveled along the flanks of the mountains and crossed into Canada to expire in the cold north woods, releasing their molecules, finally, far from the desert where they were recruited.
As if sensing such a fate, Gabriel does not come ashore, but swerves around Hatteras. It turns on the candy-striped lighthouse as if it were a swivel. It knocks down some of the more impudently situated beach houses, washes out a bridge, lifts a few boats from their moorings to deposit them on the highway. Then it straightens again for the farther north.
It must struggle a bit now to conserve strength. It is in danger of being overextended. It can no longer find support 250 miles out from its center. It contracts, pulls its arms in tighter. Its eye narrows. Several of its concentric bands merge.
It passes Virginia. It seems to consider an excursion into the Chesapeake for a moment, but the move is more like the feint of a running back. Miami sends warnings ahead, then pulls them back. Virginia and Maryland escape with moderate flooding in the low-lying tidewater country.
Gabriel approaches the mouth of Delaware Bay.
New Jersey does not intrude into its bordering seas the way North Carolina does. Cape May is a pendulous point, not a protuberant one like Cape Hatteras. The 127 miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook form an almost straight line with no prominent features to disturb it. Even Delaware Bay is an untroubled bowl, free of the jagged edges that make the nearby Chesapeake look as if it had been ripped into place.
To the north, New York’s Long Island and the whole thrust of New England stick out, staking a claim to realms of land once smothered under weights of ice. But New Jersey lies flat and featureless, its gentle shores and nurturing wetlands and comfortable pine woods belying the fact that it is the most densely populated state in the Union. There are no huge cities here, but many small ones; no vast industries but a lot of industry; no mega-agribusiness or giga-fishing fleets, but plenty of farming and fishing.
The Jersey coast has not weathered a hurricane landfall since 1821, when its population consisted largely of sea gulls. Now homes crowd the dunes, jetties interrupt the beaches, bulkheads hem the bays. The islands no longer serve as barriers. There were a few people those whose attention spans bridged decades, even centuries who predicted dire dooms, booming tragedies, unimaginable consequences. They were ignored.
But hurricanes are not nature’s retribution. Nature only distributes. Perhaps it is an undetected step backward by the North American high, or an unforeseen slip of the jet stream, or an unexpected dip in the polar trough. The watchers in Miami stare at their screens in fascination, frustration and with a touch of fatalism as Gabriel turns eastward. They have done all they can; they hope someone has been paying attention. The Federal Emergency Management Administration estimates it will take ten to twelve hours to evacuate the Jersey shore. Local authorities say it could be twice that.
As Gabriel moves toward the coast, the barometer at the Cape May Coast Guard Station turns steadily down. The weather recorders click and print. It is the day of the autumn equinox, also the spring tide when the sun lines up with the moon to reinforce its gravitational pull. Hurricane flags have been flying since Gabriel rounded Hatteras. The radio scans continuously for distress calls. Helicopters and cutters are on the ready line. Crews nap in full gear.
The station commander has only recently come here. His previous post was Key West. On his first tour of Delaware Bay, he was surprised at how many small boats there were. Somehow he had never pictured New Jersey as a state of sailors. Now he wondered how many of them had taken the storm warnings seriously. Did New Jersey ever get hurricanes? He recalled the one at Cedar Key in 1950 when the winds blew at 125 miles per hour for three days.
The storm surge hits, the advance guard, a high tide on a spring tide on a wind-driven swell that rises thirty feet, crest to trough, and moves with a force that can only be measured in tons. It tops the breakwater at the entrance to Delaware Bay and moves upriver. There is no traffic on the Delaware; the pilots’ association had closed the river in time to clear all ships en route. The rest are moored at the refineries in Marcus Hook or anchored in the roads between Philadelphia and Camden. The surge, when it gets to them, snaps hawsers, bends anchors, cripples piers and moves one empty tanker to the middle of Petty’s Island. It fills marshlands, floods farms, invades city streets.
On the seaside, along the shores of Cape May, Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth counties, the surge feels the sea floor rise beneath it. The bottom of its roll slows but the top speeds on, tumbling over in froth and foam, riding up the slope, a line of liquid locomotives steaming over the beaches. The surge presses into the narrow inlets Cold Spring, Hereford, Townsend’s, Corson’s, Great Egg Harbor, Absecon, Brigantine, Little Egg, Beach Haven, Barnegat and creates some new ones at Harvey Cedars, Seaside Heights, South Mantoloking.
It makes Sandy Hook an island again. It pushes into the Tuckahoe River and the Mullica, buckling bridges, taking out bulkheads, undercutting roads, turning gullies into streams, streams into rivers roiling and lethal with rushing debris. It isolates every community on the shore, gives Pleasantville an ocean view, floats Lucy the Elephant from her home in Margate, returns Mystic Island to the bay, turns Toms River into Toms Marsh, Spring Lake into Spring Sea, Avon-by-the Sea into Avon-in-the Sea and Sea Bright into a memory. It gives the Shrewsbury and Navesink rivers direct outlets to the ocean, as it was in the long past. There is no part of the shore above water.
The barometer is still dropping, two inches now in two hours. The commander whistles. The hurricane flags, what’s left of them, are ribbons in the wind. The anemometer is at its peak of 100 knots, 115 miles per hour. He’ll know if it gets to 150 miles per hour; that’s when those things tend to blow apart. He doesn’t bother checking the rain gauges; the rain is coming in horizontally. He watches, rapt, as the windows bend inward.
And then comes Gabriel. Behind the storm surge, which seemed to have dumped all of the sea onto the land, comes more water, rain screaming like bullets impacted in winds now 186 miles per hour. Those who had been evacuated strain at radios in high school gyms and church auditoriums and hope they have fled far enough inland. Those who had pooh-poohed the warnings, defied the police, derided packing neighbors, know suddenly that they have never known power. There is no lesson like that borne on a 186 miles-per-hour wind or perhaps higher. Gabriel has torn the cups from every anemometer on the coast. One is set spinning so rapidly it is found later to have fused from the heat that the friction generated.
A wind of 70 or 80 miles per hour can wrench signs from their posts, pull down dangling traffic signals, pull up shingles and scatter them like leaves. At 90 miles per hour, wires are unstrung, trees are flung to the ground, shutters are pulled off windows. Sustained winds over 100 miles per hour can roll trucks over, lift boats, move houses. At 120, a wind can loft concrete slabs, suck plate glass out of storefronts, knock down brick walls, flatten clipped grass on a golf green, pry up whole roofs, bend metal utility poles and tear up railway tracks. It also makes noises that witnesses have compared to jet engines, freight trains, rock slides and Niagara Falls.
Waves wash over the islands and into the bays behind them. The nuclear power plant at Oyster Creek shuts down because the coolant pipes have no outflow. Swells ride the high tide through the new inlets, scouring them out and depositing the sand in the Intracoastal Waterway. Rising waters jack up docks. Layers of salt are laid over acres of pineland.
The rains are beyond tropical; they are biblical. It is impossible to imagine forty days and forty nights of this. The winds are in stampede. In Cape May, the Victorian gingerbread that has so delighted generations of vacationers becomes shrapnel. In Wildwood, the Ferris wheel turns like a spinning wheel until the careening gondolas unbalance it and it shatters under strains it was never designed to handle. Stone Harbor is separated from Avalon. Sea Isle City loses the sturdy old drawbridge that was its only link to the mainland.
The century-old Deauville Inn at Strathmere, one of the last of the old-time, good-time hotels, veteran of storms and wars and Prohibition, amateur drunks and summer dances, pops its beams and gives up its seasoned timbers. The ocean in Ocean City, long denied access to the land beyond the sea wall, shrugs off the boardwalk above it and breaches the wall in twenty places.
The towns on Long Beach Island hunker behind their groins and jetties the way boys playing soldier crouch behind clumps of dune grass, as if they will provide protection. Put in to stabilize the ever-shifting sands, the rock structures prove not only useless but insignificant. Later, cranes will collect the four-ton boulders, deposited in places where dunes had been leveled to provide houses with a view of the sea. Now the view is unbroken. But the houses are gone.
Island Beach, the only stretch of barrier island not paved over, built up or bulkheaded, still in the state it was during the 1938 hurricane and the 1821 and the 1769 and how many unnoted ones before, absorbs Gabriel’s fury with indifference. Nests of gulls and ospreys and piping plovers are torn apart, bayberry and holly and beach plum shredded, bluefish and fluke nurseries in the shallows of its bayside ravaged. But all these will come back. On the rest of the Jersey shore, the havoc will be reckoned in dollars. The huge increases in the amount of storm damages over the years is due to the huge amount of building that has taken place since the late forties. On Island Beach the fury is as real, but no different than it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand.
At Seaside Heights, the overhead cable cars fall to the sand early on, as if knowing they are goners and anxious to get it over with. The piers are more stubborn. The waves top them to get at the roller coasters first, stripping away underpinnings that never expected the weight on them to come sideways. The wind pries out the loose timbers and hurls them at the boardwalk until it splinters. With the surf full of debris, each swell and backwash attacks the pier pilings with a thousand weapons, until they, too, fall, adding their materials to the arsenal.
Alone on the Jersey shore, Atlantic City seems able to take on Gabriel. Under colored lights that create a glow visible twenty miles out to sea are no summer cottages, matchstick boardwalks or fishing shanties but sturdy buildings, ranked cliffs of steel and concrete firmly set.
The city sits on an island no different than the other flat sand bars that line the coast, backed by the same configuration of bay and wetland. But the men who reared the gambling palaces were no gamblers. Atlantic City had already withstood hurricanes that reduced other beach towns to splinters. Here the shore does not drop away abruptly fifty feet out but slopes slowly and gently. The lack of crashing waves has made it a favorite family resort for a century. At low tide a child can walk out to the end of the Steel Pier. The long, graded slope levels the storm surge until, by the time it reaches the beach, it is reduced to a swift but flat tide.
The rains splatter against the city’s facades and run down and flood streets and seep here and there into a casino but have no real effect. The winds twist their way around angles that cut their impact, screaming, yanking planks from the wide boardwalk, stripping away tubes of neon but unable to maintain any consistency in this maze of baffles. In some places the man-made canyons boost gusts to 195 miles per hour and stop signs are hairpinned double. But mostly Gabriel can only clog the streets with the rubble it picks up from the backside of town.
The open marshes and sedge islands and shallow bays that make up the various wildlife refuges and sanctuaries for some twelve miles above Brigantine fill with water from the sea and from the sky until they are one, great, seething basin. The ever-shifting Beach Haven Inlet at the southern end of Long Beach Island no longer moves from this channel to that; it is now all channel. Long Beach Island itself is a string of short beach islands. And finally, after standing against storms and currents and the patient tides for over a century, Barnegat Lighthouse follows its predecessors into the green-demon sea as the sand beneath it turns to mush.
Above Seaside, the crowded coastal communities are swept away like quarters in a boardwalk game; the players lose. Mantoloking, Metedeconk, Manasquan the Indian names might remind newcomers of old rules: The Indians used to strike their tents and retire deep into the woods when a storm was coming. Now Gabriel strikes all the tents.
The coast towns further north, being on the mainland, are spared the rise of bay waters at their backs, but it hardly seems to matter. Resorts set up by God-loving, God-fearing people writhe and groan under the impact of God’s nature. At Asbury Park the derelict boardwalk gives up almost gladly, a glorious death after years of humiliating neglect and debilitation. The old casino, though, solidly made if shoddily maintained, almost resignedly remains in place. The elegant, Italianate houses of Deal, once walled off to the outside world, find their walls as fragile as were the mighty walls of Rome under the waves of marauding Huns.
Up to the Gateway National Recreation Area storms Gabriel, mockingly, as if it needed a gateway. Words that will be used to describe it later smashing, shattering, devastating, devouring, ravaging, savage, astounding, appalling are the best people can do, knowing they must all be taken together and then, somehow, intensified, magnified, heightened, broadened to convey any of the great-gulp emotions of awe and fear, wonder and terror, excitement and desperation this display of simple complex power engendered.
As Gabriel comes over the coast, it reveals its most wondrous aspect its eye. In an instant there is no wind, no rain, no noise. The seas still act as if this is the end of the world, waters course through unfamiliar channels seeking outlets, seeking levels, but above them reigns an almost religious calm.
People react with the gratitude and wariness of freed slaves. The air seems unnaturally light. The moon, full and white as a bride, gives the churning waters an unreal look, familiar but not quite, like a negative image where the blacks and whites are reversed the dark sea is silver and the foaming waves are black.
Most know that the air feels light because the barometric pressure is low, and that the fullness of the moon is one cause of the high waters, and that the waters themselves still run before winds that will be worse than those that went before. Winds circle through a hurricane in a counterclockwise direction. This means that as the storm itself moves north, the winds in its eastern quadrants are stronger than those in the west.
Gabriel howls. Its leading rim is already rubbing against the land. Perhaps sensing its own end, it seems to decide to go out strong rather than try to conserve its strength and drizzle away in gasping gusts and exhausted drenches. Whatever is left loose along the shore is swept and sliced away, and whatever is not yet loose is battered into rubble. Later, pictures of the whole coast will show a dreary sameness of wasted buildings, trees, boats, cars, all nearly indistinguishable in drifts of scrap and windrows of trash and wracks of ruin.
Gabriel lies on the flanks of the Appalachians, winded, wounded, spent, and dying. Its core has been pierced with cold, its access to fuel denied, its low filled in. Its buttressing bands have been torn apart. The winds that powered it reach out in all directions but find no direction. Its rains drain from the dissolving clouds in cascades that melt landscapes in one last act of transformation.
Finally the westerlies, the prevailing winds that usually convey weather systems across the continent, herd off the remaining clouds. The morning sun lights a quiet coast much different than the one on which it set.
In Miami, the weather watchers check their instruments, rub their eyes, scan the satellite feed. Along the equatorial trough other puffs and swirls march, one behind the other, like elephants in some celestial circus. The hurricane season has two months to go.
Before he ends his shift, one meteorologist makes a note: in the eastern Pacific the warm current known as El Niño seems to be stalled along the equator, allowing the submerged colder waters that flow up from the Antarctic to rise all along the western coast of South America.
The last time this happened there was drought in the Sahel.
The story of Gabriel is fiction ... so far.