Another storm gone

Wed, 08/31/2011 - 10:45pm

The storm would not be as big as first predicted, that is always a certainty. How much it would weaken and how far to the west it would go were variables.

There is usually a point at which I calm down about these things, one year when someone reported that Isabelle was following the track of the ’38 hurricane, this year when I heard that the boats would not run until Wednesday. There would be a storm, that was certain, but it would not land here the monster it could be.

There is always some crazy last-minute task before a storm. Mine was cutting a branch off the pin oak in my yard. My sister-in-law carried the seedling from her yard in Michigan and planted it where a maple had once stood. There had been two. Thankfully, the second did not survive, as there would never have been enough room for both of them.

A week or two ago I had heard a noise in the eaves above the living room, startling before I realized it was a far reaching branch of this tree tossed by an errant gust of wind.

Saturday, as the rain began to fall, I decided it was too late to call someone and it was not that big a branch anyway. At first, I thought I could lop off a few shoots but soon it became apparent the whole limb, which I had watched with some fascination as it grew and grew, out and up, until its outermost fingers lay on the roof above the gutter, would have to come down.

It’s not a great, hardy tree, and my little saw easily cut a trough in the soft wood. As the task was becoming more than I had bargained for, and the rain began filtering through the canopy of leaves above me, there was a crack, the weight of the branch bringing it down. Amazingly light, it was easy to push and pull back and forth, then slice through the few remaining fibers and have a mass of wood and leaves fall to the earth.

It was dragable, I was sure, and was surprised that it was so light I could carry it to the edge of the field before I left for the duration of the storm, seeking sanctuary with kind friends who live in an extraordinary place overlooking the sea. We could see the tide rise, nearly to the level of the wharf in the Old Harbor, and watch the waves crashing over the breakwater.

This storm followed the paths promised, moving even more to the west than had been projected. It rained, the wind blew, and the barometric pressure dropped and plateaued at the lowest point it had been since January first according to the weather station charts that are automatically updated every few minutes. It didn’t start creeping back up until late in the afternoon, after the second blast of wind had gusted over us and pushed away the clouds. It never dipped as low as it had been in December of last year, nor did the wind blow as hard as it did then, during that strange winter storm when snow and lightning fused.

It isn’t the wind or the rain, or even the tide that is foremost in the stories we heard from our childhoods, stories of the great storm of 1938 especially, when the barometer fell lower than anyone had seen it fall as the hurricane, not measured by today’s methods and not broadcast 24/7 via various media, drove up the coast. So, despite all the assurances, all the clearing sky, all the readily available satellite images, it was not until that one reading turned that I felt we had truly, as all the newscasters said, dodged the bullet.

The older I get the more I am certain I remember little of Hurricane Carol, or Diane or Edna, the three sisters who blasted up the east coast in the early 1950s. I can visualize very specific areas of damage, a roof blown off, the side of a house removed leaving the interior as exposed as that of my dolls’ house, and a lady talking of going to another building and hurting her arm when the wind took the door.

My mother said during Carol they sat and watched the south wall of the living room heave, moving in and out, a combination of wind and air pressure. She talked of summer visitors coming out and walking down the road when the eye passed over, with no idea they’d soon have to turn around and run for cover.

There was a year we missed the first day of school, concerned over a hurricane that didn’t amount to much of anything. Belle threatened but never arrived in 1976, when the roads were torn up from the sewer construction and a group of summer neighbors evacuated their highland houses for the basement of a house up the road. There was Gloria, gone before she had arrived in 1985 and Bob in 1991, brutal but blessedly fast-moving and eclipsed by the Perfect Storm the following fall.

Always, though, there is that dark cloud lingering from the 1950s, when the hurricanes did hit, that makes every escape bring sighs of relief. This time, we, on Block Island, were so very, very lucky. The storm went everywhere but here. It downed tree limbs and interrupted power and sent terrible, bridge wrecking floods across the only inland state of New England.

Here, when I walked back into my house Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining and my living room was flooded with light, that extraordinary after-the-storm sun that is unfiltered by clouds.

It was a moment before I realized it was not just the storm-scoured sky but the loss of the tree branch, the lovely green canopy that I hadn’t even realized had grown quite so large until it scraped the roof, that was making everything look so new and bright and beautiful.

A few days later I realize that everything is burnished, leaves fallen and crinkled, the sky visible through branches that were opaque last week. Birds are chirping but they are not swooping in to make a feast of the insects hanging in the still late day air. Perhaps summer’s end will not be so hastened after all.