Waiting for Earl: A Report from Martha's Vineyard

[This piece was co-authored with Atlantic Correspondent Ben W. Heineman, Jr.]

CHILMARK, MA. After days of waiting for Earl, it seems he is actually coming to our small rural town of Chilmark on the western end of the island of Martha's Vineyard. Earl is the unwelcome end-of-summer visitor, the kind who keeps hinting that he wants to come stay with us in our picturesque beach community and finally decides to barge in uninvited for a last-minute Labor Day weekend visit. We had long heard stories of the times when some of his other family members had come to visit--cousin Bob in 1991 and aunt Carol in 1954. And they had indeed caused trouble, big trouble everywhere they visited in their northern trip along the Eastern United States.

But now it was our turn, and we were waiting to meet Earl. Yes, he was indeed coming our way, but we still did not know quite what to expect. Then came the daunting Thursday evening Code Red robo-call: "Hurricane warning for Chilmark residents. The governor and board of selectmen have declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the arrival of Hurricane Earl Friday afternoon. You are encouraged to make all necessary preparations before noon on Friday. After that time, please avoid traveling. All roads and businesses should be considered closed as of 2 p.m. Friday. You should shelter at your home if it is safe to do so."

The headline on this morning's top story on the Vineyard Gazette website confirms our fears: "State of Emergency and High Alert. Hurricane Earl Barrels Up the East Coast."

Still, on this Friday dawn, we look out from our Martha's Vineyard house over the wild flower meadow, Chilmark Pond, the fragile barrier beach and the Atlantic Ocean, it is hard to believe that Earl could roar in later today with hurricane force winds and pummeling rain. The fog is lifting; the wind a zephyr only; the mute swans sitting calmly on the water. It is a typical lazy, early September morning, a slow glide into Labor Day before returning to the work-a-day world. The expression,"the calm before the storm," seems more apt than ever. The only discordant note: the sound of huge surf breaking on the ocean beach.

But, like all our neighbors, our eyes are diverted from this serene sea-scape to hyper ventilating, on-the-scene Weather Channel reporters from Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina to Chatham, Massachusetts, providing little information but much emotion about Hurricane Earl as it punches the Outer Banks and then tracks directly towards Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

A better screen is on the computer where the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) website provides much more hurricane information in a fraction of the time. Clearer storm track; probabilities of wind velocities and rain in our area; and explanations of why being on the West side of the hurricane is better. A hurricane is a huge cyclone with winds churning in a counterclockwise direction so that the Eastern side has the most wind and storm surge (as it moves in the direction of the storm) and the Western side has somewhat lower winds. At this point, it appears that Nantucket, our sister (and sometimes rival) island, which sticks further out into the Atlantic, will bear the brunt of the storm more than the Vineyard.

We have been compulsively checking these sources of information since Wednesday every hour or two although any significant changes in forecasting only come about every 12 hours. Even now, about 8 to 10 hours before the storm hits, we are not sure whether it will pass East of Nantucket (so we are on the better West side) or how far; whether we will get sustained hurricane winds (more than 70 mph) or just gusts or only tropical storm winds (e.g. sustained winds of 45-50 mph with gusts in the 60s).

But we knew enough two days ago to be shaken from our summer torpor, our last geopolitical thriller, our kayaking and swimming, to join Islanders here (and our southern neighbors along the Atlantic Coast) in preparing for an autocratic slap from Nature's majesty. We are used to winter snows clogging the streets and airport delays due to thunderstorms, but we are not ready for a roaring monster, with horizontal sheets of rain, raking our home and our island. We are not used to being face to face with an implacable nature that "just is" and doesn't care a whit about our flowers or lawn or trees or boats. It will come blasting past without acknowledging that we puny mortals exist.

Presented by

Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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