In October 1954, Hurricane Hazel flooded the basement of our new home in suburban Philadelphia with four feet of water. While my parents tried to cope with the damage, my sister and I attached string to long sticks, sat on the basement steps, and “went fishing.” All we caught were amused glances from our frazzled parents. We were too young to comprehend the devastation Hazel caused as winds of up to 150 mph ravaged the Caribbean, making landfall in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina before ripping through the mid-Atlantic and delivering a decisive blow to Canada. 1,000 were killed in Haiti, 95 in the U.S., and 81 in Toronto. In Battery Park, winds gusting up to 113 mph topped all previous records for New York City. Objects from Haiti ended up on the California shore. In all, Hurricane Hazel lasted 13 days and cost $3.4 billion by today’s standards. To us kids, it was all a game. No school for two weeks!
“Get away from the window,” my mother snapped every five minutes. How could I? It was better than television which, in those days, was black and white and limited to three channels. As I recall, they all displayed a static emergency message. Telephone lines were down. Mail stopped. No newspapers. The only source of news was the radio. If you had electricity. But standing at the bay window, I had a front-row seat of a spectacular show. Howling winds, tree limbs cracking and rain moving sideways in thick sheets. It was so enthralling I forgot to fight with my sister.
For decades, Hazel was the standard by which all subsequent storms were rated. “Oh, this one is bad, alright. But remember Hazel?,” they’d say. Hazel was so lethal that the name was officially retired from the hurricane registry — like the shirt of a football player on steroids — and immediately fell into disfavor as a name for baby girls. The thing is, Hurricane Hazel was the exception. If you lived in the mid-Atlantic, hurricanes came every fall but were no big deal. Houses at the Jersey Shore needed to be protected and beaches occasionally eroded, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be restored by homeowner’s insurance and local taxes.
Then came Hurricane Sandy. And the deck is reshuffled. Not only is Sandy the most damaging storm to rip through the mid-Atlantic, but we were told by Governor Cuomo to get used to it. “Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality,” he said. If the flooding of New Jersey’s barrier islands, Lower Manhattan and Queens is the new normal, then guess what? The most important issue of the Presidential campaign wasn’t the economy, the war in Afghanistan or social issues. It’s our infrastructure.
Ancient civilizations understood the power of nature. They knew that angry gods could destroy their towns with floods, volcanoes and earth quakes. Perhaps it’s time for us to rethink not just the power of nature, but the nature of power. If Hurricane Sandy, for all its destruction, caused President Obama and Governor Christie to put aside politics one week before the election and focus on rebuilding our communities, perhaps Sandy will be remembered as an end to the bipartisanship that has been tearing our country apart for four years.
Then again, maybe I’m just fishing.