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The storms that shape who we are, how we live

About 24 hours before Superstorm Sandy made landfall in southern New Jersey, my brother and I stooped in the drizzle and found the old mark on the front walk of the family home in southwestern Rhode Island that depicted just how far the water rose during the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. I paced it off: six good strides — roughly 18 feet — to the front steps.

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Despite the great size and strength and reach of Sandy, we figured the house would be fine. When choosing a benchmark in the Northeast for comparison with a storm the likes of Sandy, you have to go way back to that deadly 1938 hurricane, sometimes called the Long Island Express, which killed as many as 600 people (more by some estimates) and damaged or destroyed almost 60,000 homes from the Bahamas to Canada.

The Category 3 hurricane took the Northeast by surprise when it made landfall Sept. 21 at Suffolk County, Long Island, N.Y., on a full-moon high tide, with a second landfall near New Haven, Conn., in Milford. The Blue Hill Observatory south of Boston (and east of the storm) saw sustained winds of 121 mph with a peak gust of 186 mph, according to the National Weather Service. Areas of southern New England saw a destructive storm surge of up to 20 feet, and a large portion of the shoreline was battered by sustained winds greater than 100 mph.

The ’38 hurricane formed Sept. 10 off the Cape Verde Islands and strengthened slowly. By Sept. 19 it was east of the Bahamas and had grown into an estimated Category 5 storm, threatening Florida. A deep trough over Appalachia caused the storm to turn north, where most forecasters expected it would move northeast and head out to sea. However, a high-pressure system centered north of Bermuda prevented the storm from making the expected turn to the east and rumbling out to sea, according to an article in Business Insider.

It sprinted north very quickly. In the 12 hours before making landfall, the hurricane was moving as fast as 70 mph at times, primarily due to the interaction with the jet stream, according to a report on the storm by Risk Management Solutions. It may well be the fastest-moving tropical cyclone on record, and it was that great forward speed that enabled the storm to maintain its strength as it raced over cooler northern waters.

The Northeast never saw it coming, with the exception of one junior forecaster with the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., who predicted the storm would hit New England but whose forecast was overridden.

Hurricane of '38

As we were so reminded by Sandy, the Saffir-Simpson scale is but one measure of strength, specifically peak sustained winds. By that measure, Sandy was a Category 1 hurricane, which is defined as having sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph.

When sizing up Sandy, there is another metric — integrated kinetic energy, or IKE — that should be considered. It’s not a term you hear bandied about by laymen weather-watchers. IKE is the measure of the energy in a storm based on how far out the tropical storm force winds extend from the center of the storm, according to Brian McNoldy, a senior researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Compared with all modern storms for which detailed wind-field analysis is available, Sandy’s IKE score ranks second among all storms at landfall, ahead of Katrina and other hurricanes far higher on the Saffir-Simpson scale, including Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5, according to a piece McNoldy wrote in The Washington Post. Sandy was second only to Hurricane Isabel in 2003. It would be interesting to see how it compares to the ’38 hurricane.

McNoldy calculates that Sandy generated more than twice the energy of the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima, with gale-force winds reaching out 900 miles or more from edge to edge. Gale-force winds from Hurricane Katrina, by contrast, extended about 300 miles from edge to edge.

Small, intense storms such as Andrew, McNoldy points out, generate far less energy than large, weak storms — weak in terms of the Saffir-Simpson scale. And here’s the important takeaway: Hurricane storm surge is more affected by the size of the storm than its intensity or peak winds. In other words, it is the size of the area over which strong winds blow — the fetch — that can have such a devastating impact in terms of surge.

Like the Great Hurricane of 1938, Sandy also made landfall with one of the lowest pressures ever recorded for any storm north of Cape Hatteras, N.C., according to a blog written by McNoldy. And it’s the very low pressure that creates strong winds on the surface.

I read an interview that The Christian Science Monitor did with historian Cherie Burns, who wrote the 2005 book “The Great Hurricane: 1938.” One question asked was, “What did this teach you about resilience?”

Burns answered: “Today, there’s therapy after disasters. ... But these were New Englanders; they really didn’t have a lot of that. They pulled up their socks and went on. People moved on with their lives. They didn’t have the national support, either. This was very specific to the region. Because Hitler went into Czechoslovakia a few days after the storm, the national interest went away from the storm.”

Hurricane Sandy

Burns could have been speaking for my grandparents, who rode out the ’38 hurricane on their stomachs with a mattress over them in a second-floor room above their stores in Watch Hill, R.I., where roughly 40 homes were washed off Napatree Point. The windows blew out, and the water surged through the stores below them. It was not the first “storm” for either of them.

My grandmother had lost her first husband and her 5-year-old son within the space of a year in the 1920s. She later married Olaf Berentsen, a Norwegian-born ship captain who cut his teeth aboard J.P. Morgan’s great yacht Corsair and later operated private yachts. “Cap,” as he was known, had fought in the colossal battle of the Argonne with the 77th Infantry Division in France during World War I. Shortly after returning home from the war, his first wife died of an illness.

In February 1938, my grandparents’ Watch Hill property was destroyed by fire. They rebuilt, and now they lay hunkered down as this great hurricane shook their world. When it was over, they picked up the pieces once more and went on.

Like moths to a flame, we choose to live at the margin of land and sea.

January 2013 issue