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Sunday, August 28, 2011

THE STORM



I would describe 1775 as a year of significant events; Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill; and then there was the hurricane. One random afternoon that summer, over the bone dry high-pressure incubator that is the 3 ½ million square miles of the Sahara Desert, where the summertime temperature can reach 135 F (57.7 C), a monster was conceived.
But the Sahara alone, for all its hot breath, cannot produce a monster: it also requires a midwife, the Sahel, an Arabic word meaning “shoreline”, where the sands of the great desert ocean meet the shrub and flat savanna. Every April to September, at about 16 degrees north latitude, (the Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone) the hot Easterly jet off the Sahara meets the rainy season humidity over the Sahel, and waves of thunderstorms burst forth from thin air, one after another, with a new wave forming every three to four days.
Most of the storms that form over the great Niger River Bend - over Mauritania, Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote Diviore - fade and are forgotten like drops of water in a dry riverbed. But some cumulus towers collide with the cold air above 42,000 feet, forming anvil topped thunderheads. The anvils form because as the air rises the temperature and its ability to hold moisture drops. The flat lid marks the boundary between the humid troposphere and the arid stratosphere. And eventually this squall line of angry air lives long enough to pass yet another Sahal, this one the border between Africa and the tropical Atlantic Ocean.In 1775, some 300 miles to the west, what was then a Tropical Depression sailed passed the Cape Verde Islands like a stately fleet of wooden ships of the line. And again it was persistence which chose which line of  storms would earn fame, as over time the friction between the troposphere below and the northern rushing jet stream above would tip the vertical heat engine of the thunderstorms into a horizontal sweep, gathering the squals and driving them in a counter-clock spin. Sometime in mid August of 1775, as this storm set sail for the new world, it became a nameless Tropical Storm in the open sea, headed west.When Christopher Columbus first invaded the Caribbean at the end of the fifteenth century he found people across the region who revered a capricious god of storms known as “Hunrakan”, “Hurakan”, or “Aracan”. Having never heard of the Sahara or the Sahel, the residents of the Windward Isles of Martinique and Dominica, could not have imagined the source of the violence that assaulted them almost without warning on Friday, August 25, 1775. A report from St. Croix described how ships at anchor desperately slipped their cables, seeking the relative safety of the open sea. It was as likely as not that such gambles resulted in an enigmatic death. Fifty years later the British Admiralty would estimate that each year 5% of all ships in the Caribbean were lost to such storms, taking as many as a thousand sailors to watery graves.One such sailor, Captain John Tollemache of HMS Scorpion, fought this particular storm of 1775 as he crossed down the American coast from British occupied Boston to Bermuda. About a week later, on Saturday, September 2nd, the storm brushed across the outer banks of North Carolina, causing extensive property damage, taking 163 lives in the port of New Bern and destroying the corn crops of Parasquotank County. The Williamsburg, “Virginia Gazette” mourned that, “…most of the mill dams are broke, and corn laid almost level with the ground…many ships…drove ashore and damaged at Norfolk, Hampton and York”. The Britsh warship H.M.S. Mercury was forced from her blockade of Norfolk, “…and driven aground in shoal water.” Patriots picked her bones and liberated her cargo, a gift of the gale.With its center still off shore this unnamed hurricane swept up Chesapeake Bay. Philadelphia, under a heavy constant rain at 8am on the morning of September 3rd, saw the wind from the Southeast and a pressure drop to 29.5 inches of mercury. By three that afternoon the wind had shifted to the Southwest, and records speak of the “highest tide ever known” - the storm surge. Further north, at Newport, Rhode Island, the wind shifted from the Northeast to Southeast between 10am and 2:30pm. As September 3rd ended and the 4th began, the storm turned northwestward, and headed out to sea. There was only one landmass in the new world remaining between the hurricane and its ultimate fate over the cold waters of the Labrador Current; Newfoundland.There were thousands of fishermen on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. September was the peak season for the long finned squid (Logilo pealiei), used as bait for Cod fishing, and fishermen from all around the Atlantic basin came here every fall to take a share of the bounty. But this season the squid had made no appearance until late in the afternoon of Saturday, September 9, when they suddenly descended on the jigging hooks in an ominous blizzard. The squid were even attacking each other while writhing on the hooks. What was driving these cephalopods to such as frenzy? As the fishermen happily pulled in their abundance they noticed that the dieing sun was blazing in an odd orange tint, and that the wind was freshening and gathering. As darkness enveloped the fishing fleets the more cautious captains made for Salvage Point or Ochre Pit Cove. But none of these anchorages were protected enough.That night the sea and the air conspired to murder men and their works. Ships which had thought they were safe were battered into rocky shores. In Northern Bay cove three hundred sailors and fishermen drowned by morning, their bleached and bloated bodies strewn across the rocks like beached dolphins. They now lie in a mass grave in the Provincial Park. Human bones would continue to wash ashore on this beach for years to come. At Harbor Grace, 30 miles to the south, 300 boats and all their crews were lost while at anchor.
In Placentia (above), dawn found the most substantial community in Newfoundland at the time, with almost 2,000 souls, awash in a six foot storm surge. Those who survived did so by climbing into the rafters of their attics. A fishing schooner was thrown up on the beach overnight. The only surviving crew member was a boy, lashed to the wheel. Off the Avalon Peninsula two navy schooners were sunk and dozens of fishing ships demasted and left adrift.
At St. Johns (above), on the west coast, the storm surge was 30 feet, and seven hundred boats, large and small in the narrow harbor were submerged and smashed to bits against each other and the rocks. Fishermen from St; Johns, pulling in their nets on Tuesday, the 12th of September, found between 20 and 30 bodies tangled in them.After it was all over a review of the losses listed by Lloyds would produce the startling figure of 4,000 dead, mostly Irish and English, in the fishing fleets off Newfoundland. Rear Admiral Robert Duff, Governor of Newfoundland, attempted to detail the disaster for his superiors back in London; “I am sorry to inform your Lordship that…the fishing works in those places…were in a great measure defaced…I cannot give your Lordship a very correct estimate of the damages sustained by this storm; but (you) should image…that the amount of it in shipping, boats, fishing works etc. cannot be less than thirty thousand pounds…” (about $2 million today).
There was scarcely a house on Newfoundland with an intact roof or chimney, even if they had not been flooded out. The hurricane of September 1775 remains Canada’s deadliest natural disaster. For decades afterward the survivors on Conception Bay could still hear the desperate cries of the lost souls in the cold surf.
As for the storm itself, conceived over the Sahara and born of the warm equatorial waters, it could not simply die. Once over the colder currents of the North Atlantic the storm converted from a warm core to a cold one, drawing a diminished power not merely from air pressure variations but also from temperature divisions, becoming just another in the unending string of common “baroclinic” cyclones that march across Europe. But I like to think that this was the particular storm that passed over Carrickfergus castle, outside of Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1775, which brought with it such violent and continuous lightening and thunder that it was said the Scotch and Irish fairies were doing battle in the heavens above. That would be a significant enough ending for such a storm in such a significant year.
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