Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 38 Issue 20 • Sept. 11 - 17, 2008
now in our 37th season

Coming Storms

by Robert P. Barsanti

Another storm has missed the island.  The weather service radar had huge splotches of red and yellow massing just to the north and west of the island.  The radio was dour, and the Weather Channel had dispatched its Video Samurai to record the destruction of Broad Street for the amusement of the rest of the country.  Then, as so many of the storm do, it slipped away from us in the middle of the night and left the island with brisk northwest winds and roiling waves.

I have spent twenty years waiting for the major storm to blow up over Miacomet Beach. I watch them form as “invests,” hope they become better organized into “depressions”, and then let the whirling commence.   I don’t want to see my roof cartwheeling to Hyannis, nor  do I want to bail floodwaters out of Lower Orange Street.  But, I would be willing to trade a day or two of inconvenience to witness and testify to the brown and gray oceanic power.  Unfortunately, I still wait.

The storms that have come in, the ones that get calendars, video tapes, and their own special names, visit without sending the memo to the Weather Channel.  One storm came while the Patriots were beating up the Colts in a playoff game.  The snow came, the power went out, and the family and I watched the rest of the game from the Jared Coffin House.  The No-Name storm surprised us at its tenacity and its  fierceness.  We watched the houses float away on the waves in Sconset and saw the harbor re-establish its tideline in the police station.

In the end, the storms do little damage to the island.  The water rises, a basement floods, sandbags are filled, and the cots come out in the gymnasium.  The island has been so weathered by hundreds of years of nor-easters and hurricanes that it rolls right under them.  We have no long harbor that will focus a tidal surge, nor do we live in a latitude where the hurricanes build and sit.  By the time they spin up here, the jet stream is ready to whisk them to Nova Scotia. The most damaging storms hit Nantucket from Wall Street. Bankers have ruined more Nantucket homes than waves or wind.  The storms rise, the storms go, but the island abideth forever

Spared the storms of autumn, we embrace a long running summer.  August has settled in comfortably and watched as the boats and the golfers have sailed away.  The stripers and the bluefish continue to wait for hooks and lines.  The golfers line up at Sankaty and Miacomet.  The corn remains heavy on the stalk and the tomatoes droop from the vines.  The beaches, the parking lots, and the Downyflake are a lot easier to reach, but the crowds of summer seem to be just around the corner.  Even hurricanes can’t blow the summer away just yet.   ThEndless Summer seems ready to blow through the fall, ducking each and every rolling storm.

Eastman Johnson painted this season.  In the 1870’s, he summered on Cliff Road and painted the scenes and the people of the island.  In one, forty folks sit down in a farmyard to peel corn.  In another, the same forty folks (more or less) gather to pick cranberries near Jetties Beach.  In all of these pictures, a summer sky stretches out over the toiling community and wraps them in the beach clothes of autumn.

But even in this sentimental view of the island, the people were still preparing for the winter.  The cranberries would be dried or canned, the corn preserved for the animals or for the grinding wheel.  The community joined in, lifted itself, and helped out.  Work that would have quickly exhausted the energy of one man, or one family, yielded to the strength of the town.  Forty folks, young and old, can shuck a lot of corn and pick even more cranberries.

During the more recent storms, those folks stood up, linked arms, and held on.  They recovered as much as they can from imperiled houses in  Sconset.  During the snow storms, they shoveled out the old and the  sick.  And in the coming financial storms, they will continue to knit  together, flex, and hold on.

The storm comes.  It creeps northward under a mackerel-back sky and arrives atop gray and rolling waves.  It blows in with gusts of rain and rising tides.  It knocks the pins from the golf holes, sinks the pretty boats, and rips the shingles from the roof.  It brings change down upon us.

This storm, like the hundred before it, will do little to change the fundamentals of the island.  The beaches and the moors remain, the wind will blow from the southwest, and the bluefish will bite.  August will come again, with its sun, its waves, and its cool evenings.  Like the island, the community will hold together.   From adversity will come advantage: from difficulty comes durability.

As August has passed so has our boom ended.  The soaring billion dollar real estate market has hunkered down in the lee of a dune.   With it, the phones have grown silent for the contractors and the painters.  The surfers, the diners, the clients, and the tenants have swum off with the tuna.  We hope they will return.

But if they don’t, we will continue to find a way. We can’t pull the joys of August back from the sea any more than we can pull sperm whales up on the beach at Surfside.  But in these last moments as we buy our bread, milk, and cat food, we can look beyond the storms to spring.  The island has survived wind and wave for centuries and it emerges always with a new idea on old ground.

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