The devastation of New Jersey and New York shoreline structures from Hurricane Sandy appears to have been more than it was from the no-name hurricane of 1938 that hit this stretch of the Atlantic seaboard when I was 18.
The loss of 600 lives in the storm of that year were 10 times those from Sandy — probably because of the lack of advance warnings.
The l938 predecessors were the 1815 hurricane that hit New York City, another that battered Norfolk, Va., and Long Island in 1821, the Saxby Gale of 1860 that hit both Maine and Canada, and still another that hit New York City in 1893 and removed Hog Island.
We’ve had our own interim trials with smaller hurricanes since that of 1938, and they thrust themselves upon the Atlantic coast, shaping its configuration.
Sandy was larger than all of them, although its wind speed was considerably less than that of 1938 that reached far beyond a hundred miles an hour at its peak.
Nevertheless, while coastlines evolve from nature, they are intruded upon by commerce and communities.
“I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,’’ poet John Masefield wrote in his much celebrated poem speaking of its lure.
We settled within the reach of the breaking surf of our oceans and along streams, rivers and lakes from coast to coast. They were the early highways of travel and commerce and recreation, and they remain central to our needs.
Being human, we overreach as we have at Plum Island and along the roadway connecting Salisbury and Hampton beaches.
During the hurricane of 1938, there were only modest cottages, a dance hall, a few business structures, a church and boats to suffer a storm’s onslaught at Plum Island.
In 1938 we could not have imagined the year-round settling in on the Plum Island of today.
The beach and dunes continue to serve its central purpose as a barrier. Water pours along its shores in thundering waves or wavelets, shaping its contours. Its shoreline is constantly adding to, or diminishing, sections of the beach. It moves sand according to the tidal currents and prevailing winds, but in the long haul sand moves mostly southerly.
During major storms, surges strike inland with destructive force, reaching far up and, ultimately, back down the webs of rivers, displacing soil and sand that eventually finds its way to the sea.
Major flooding can come from upriver during thaws of winter shedding its snow and ice coats, often with such force that buoys lean down river despite incoming tides.
Storm flood surges of the Merrimack slow outflow from as far north as Plymouth, N.H., and the Connecticut does the same all the way to Vermont’s White River Junction, where the storms make islands of cities and towns.
Consider what we were watching on television in New York and New Jersey last week and ponder what would have happened on the North Shore if the center of Sandy’s impact had been Newport, R.I.
Boston’s low lands would have been devastated because much was once marshes.
So would shoreline properties up the coast probably to Portland, Maine. The two major rivers reaching seaward from the White Mountains, the Merrimack and the Piscatiqua at Portsmouth, would have wreaked havoc.
Plum Island and Salisbury beaches would have been awash. Newburyport’s Water and Merrimack streets would be as well, and the celebrated boardwalk would have either been submerged or, if its fastenings gave way, its timbers would be bashing Merrimac Street properties.
The short of it is that seashore communities are forever attractive and forever vulnerable, a reality that hasn’t discouraged their spread from Plymouth to wherever oceans wash America’s hems. We just don’t want to think too much about the downside.
Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.