Novelist Next Door #3: Hurricane Alley

A salt pond on the Weekapaug Coast, RI

It’s good to be back at the NND blog after a long hiatus during which I’ve been…well…writing a novel. I started writing Yellow Sky, Emerald Sea three autumns ago during calmer times, meteorologically speaking, on the Atlantic Coast. Publication is set for February 2018.

The new novel centers on the run up to the 80th anniversary of the Hurricane of 1938 in Rhode Island at what you would call “ground zero” of the storm–the Weekapaug Coast. Many outside New England have never heard of the storm. It charged through southern New England and ripped up through Vermont in the time before they named storms after people. High winds and tidal surge were its main tools of destruction. It was before weather forecasters could even track hurricanes well, although one novice meteorologist in Washington, DC, predicted the exact path the storm would take but was ignored by his supervisor.  By the time New Yorkers and New Englanders knew the storm was coming, it was on top of them.

As I researched this storm after visiting the Weekapaug coast in 2010, the particular stories of the survivors were so compelling for me I couldn’t forget them. My father, a Rhode Island schoolboy at the time, lived through the storm. I was also haunted by the sight of Fort Mansfield during some conservation biology research I was doing in the vicinity that summer. Eventually, the hurricane story and the Westerly area today began to simmer in my brain and the novel seed sprouted….

View from the top of Fort Mansfield, Napatree Point, Westerly, RI

In 1938, hurricane response efforts were quite different than today. Before and after the storm hit there was no communication between New England and the rest of the country. In the storm’s wake, many transportation routes–roads and rails–were left cratered, displaced, or covered with downed trees and telephone poles. People had to drive–through quite treacherous conditions–to get word out and much needed rescue and recovery help.

An excerpt from the journal of a fictional eyewitness in the forthcoming Yellow Sky, Emerald Sea:

“It rained near every other day that summer of ‘38. And if it didn’t, the sky was clogged with clouds and the air sticky. But that Wednesday was the first bright sunny day since late June. Everyone flocked to the bay, the beaches, the rivers, and the golf courses. All of them were looking to squeeze a final drop of summer out of the first day of autumn. Except for a few seasoned fishermen I knew then. They each told me how the scarlet tint in the dawn sky made them hunker down in ports along the Weekapaug Coast that morning. By mid-afternoon, the sky turned a sickly yellow-green with a reddish overglaze. The crows and gulls disappeared. Then it hit. After a couple hours’ wind and wave chaos, the town I knew vanished.”

This year hurricanes have broken our all over. As I write this piece, there’s another hurricane headed toward Ireland of all places. Storms have wreaked havoc in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, and many other Caribbean Islands.

As we navigate this new weather world and a changing climate, we are blessed to have the tools we have at our disposal, the Internet, hurricane tracking planes, detailed forecasting, and sophisticated logistics organization. But one thing hasn’t changed, the neighborly impulse to reach out to help, either next door or thousands of miles away.

Napatree Beach, Westerly RI. This narrow peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and Little Narragansett Bay was home to more than 40 families before the Hurricane of 1938. Their stout summer houses were pushed by the rising Atlantic Ocean into the Bay. Some of the residents reached Connecticut still clinging to their roofs.