Saturday, May 28, 2016

Weathering the Storms

“I Carry My Weather”

I’ve always been fascinated by weather... I love the changes and the flow.  But it doesn’t always love me back.  Nonetheless, I watch mother nature as a fascinated observer.  I photograph her, videotape, write about her, sing about the rain, wind and snow.  I’ve romanticized it all and remember all the times of my life by what’s popular in music and films and what was happening with the weather.

Being raised a Northern girl, I was always conscious of the four seasons and welcomed each change as it came my way.  When I was about 7 years old, my mother and stepfather had just gotten custody of my brother and I after we’d traveled with our father and stepmother for about 5 years.  We had been all over Europe, lived in Germany for a few years, traveled the U.S. and Canada.  The only thing I remember about the weather in Germany is that it snowed a lot and Christmas was great fun with St. Nicholas and sleds.  We hadn’t seen our mother in all that time, so our reunion at O’Hare Airport in Chicago was very emotional for Mom. It was to be our new life.

Almost as soon as we arrived in Chicago, we bought a house at 237 Magnolia Plaza, South Chicago Heights.  No sooner had we settled in our new home, we were hit by the Chicago Blizzard of 1967, which struck northeast Illinois on January 26, 1967, with a record-setting 23 inches of snow falling in Chicago and its suburbs before the storm abated the next morning. To this day, it is the worst blizzard in Chicago history. We had a maid named Lily who we loved very much.  She took great care of us and our house.  During the blizzard with its 10-foot drifts, it was the only time I remember Lily having to spend the night.  I remember trying to open our front door, but couldn’t; we were snowed in.  It was fun for us kids to build igloos and play in the snow, but was devastating for the adults. (see video)

One of the first memories I have of weather is Mom telling me the story of the 1967 Oak Lawn tornado.  She’d had dreams about it before it happened and was caught right in the middle of the terrible event.  She was forever terrified of tornadoes.

If you were living in or near Oak Lawn, Illinois, on April 21, 1967, your life permanently changed that day. You witnessed the devastation that an F4 - 65 mph tornado can cause. The Oak Lawn tornado killed 33 people, injured over 1,000 and caused $50 million ($285 million in today’s dollars) worth of damage.

I lived in Central Illinois from 1972 to 1975 and remember experiencing many terrible storms, including F1 tornadoes... but none as devastating as the tornadoes that hit us in 1967 and 1970 in Cook County.

In the month that my sister, Tami, was conceived, the Blizzard of 1979 arrived. Chicago's fourth worst snowstorm in the city’s history occurred on January 13-14, 1979 and dumped a whopping 18.8 inches of snow on the city and suburbs. The monster blizzard was a natural disaster but a manmade catastrophe, due to the lack of plowing and planning after the storm.  From then on, during my time in the Chicago area - 1979 to 1984 - I was in the midst of some of the most brutal Chicago winters.

I moved to Austin, Texas around 1984 and in 1985, a rare snow storm hit Austin and we had 7.5 inches of snow within an 11-day stretch.  I’ll never forget it because they told us it NEVER snows in Austin and almost as soon as we arrived, we were hit with one of the worst winters in their history.  The Hill Country was suspended in time, everything at a standstill, cars stranded all over the place and no one knew how to drive in the white stuff.

In 1989, I was living on the islands near Charleston, SC when Hurricane Hugo made landfall. It was the worst storm of my life thus far.  It strengthened into a category 5 hurricane before making landfall at McClellanville, a small shrimping town up the coast from Charleston, South Carolina on September 21.  Mandatory evacuation was in place, so we all fled to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina.  I was the first to return to James Island the night after and witnessed devastation like I’d never seen in my lifetime - and the police chasing the looters. Hurricane Hugo caused 27 fatalities in South Carolina, left nearly 100,000 homeless, and resulted in $10 billion (1989 USD) in damage overall, making it the most damaging hurricane ever recorded at the time.  I’d lived in a beach house on Folly Beach.  When I returned to see the devastation, I found the top floor of the beach house across the street with graffiti sprayed on its side: “HU-GONE!”  We were without water, power and cable for months and had to stand in line while the national guard handed out bags of ice and bottles of water.

Then there was the freak snowstorm in Charleston after Hugo. The largest snowstorm in history for the Southeast U.S. coast occurred just before Christmas 1989.  This storm broke all-time snowfall records in Charleston (8 inches).  Measurable snow fell as far south as Jacksonville and Tallahassee, Florida, and snow flurries were reported in Tampa and near Sarasota. I remember how everything came to a standstill.  It wasn’t like living in Chicago where life goes on and people know how to drive in snow and on ice... the cable went out, phones were dead... nothing worked for days.

It was ironic that my mother’s house was almost destroyed by Hugo in 1989 and then my father, Dick’s house was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew which was, at the time of its occurrence in August 1992, the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history. It caused major damage in the Bahamas and Louisiana, but the greatest impact was in South Florida, where he’d lived most of his life and where it made landfall at category 5 hurricane intensity.  He told me that he’d rescued the painting I’d done of him and my stepmother.  My father was retired from the military, but worked for Dade County and tracked hurricanes for many years.  He knew to take shelter in the bathroom.

August 12, 1991, I was packing everything to move to New York, watching the creek rise and the streets flooding.  I was sure the house would flood.  Just as we arrived in Queens, NY on the 18th, Hurricane Bob was headed toward the Carolinas.  I moved to New York being followed by a hurricane!  It hit Long Island the next day! 

Late October, 1991, I was soon to discover firsthand what a nor’easter was like when we collided with “The Perfect Storm.” A cyclone significantly strengthened as a result of the temperature contrast between the cold air to the northwest and the warmth and humidity from the remnants of Hurricane Grace. It had an unusual retrograde motion for a nor'easter, beginning a set of meteorological circumstances that occur only once every 50 to 100 years.  “Lucky me!” I thought as I really had convinced myself that I’d seen the last of hurricanes.  The “perfect storm” moniker was coined by author and journalist Sebastian Junger, but, to me, it was just winds like I’d never felt - not even in “The Windy City.”  I cleaned up many a nor’easter during my years on Long Island.

Next came what they now call the “1993 Storm of the Century,” also known as the '93 Super Storm, the Great Blizzard of 1993, or the No Name Storm, was a large cyclonic storm that formed over the Gulf of Mexico on March 12, 1993.  I was living in Queens and we were having a hard time digging the car out of the snow drifts.  I had to walk to the subway to go to work in Manhattan, which was a real adventure!

From 1996 through 2016, I was in seven major historical record-breaking blizzards in New York:
  1.     27.5” on January 22-23, 2016
  2.     26.9” on February 11-12, 2006
  3.     20.9” on February 25-26, 2010
  4.     20.2” on January 7-8, 1996
  5.     20.0” on December 26-27, 2010
  6.     19.8” on February 16-17, 2003
  7.     19.0” on January 26-27, 2011
As I was about to leave New York for a hiatus after living there almost 25 years, another record-breaking storm hit Long Island in January 2016.  I’ve always photographed the blizzards (I even wrote a song called “The Blizzard”), but this one was really hard to photograph while standing.  The storm literally blew me away! 

I’ve not even BEGUN to describe the hurricanes and nor’easters of New York!  And the earthquake after Hurricane Irene that reverberated all the way from Virginia.  September 16, 1999, Hurricane Floyd arrived.  In New York City, public schools were closed on September 16, 1999, the day Floyd hit the area. This was a rare decision by the city, as New York City public schools close on average once every few years.  Before Floyd, the last time New York City closed its schools was for the Blizzard of 1996.  In New York, over 10 inches of rain triggered mudslides on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson River near the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Hurricane Irene was a large and destructive tropical cyclone, which affected much of the Caribbean and East Coast of the United States during late August 2011 (it hit New York on August 28th).  Irene is ranked as the seventh-costliest hurricane in United States history.  For me, it was one of the most frightening events because of the tornado warnings - something rare on Long Island.  It was the first time I’d heard the emergency broadcast system - not as a warning.  It was a helpless feeling and reminded me of the tornado warnings we’d hear in the Midwest all those years ago.  The wind/rain bands were wild and torrential.  The skies were incredible to watch.

Last, but not least, was my namesake, Hurricane Sandy, which arrived on Oct. 29, 2012.  Unofficially known as “Superstorm Sandy,” it was the deadliest and most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, and the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.  The storm became the largest Atlantic hurricane on record (as measured by diameter, with winds spanning 1,100 miles).  Estimates as of 2015 assessed damage to have been about $75 billion (2012 USD), a total surpassed only by Hurricane Katrina.  At least 233 people were killed along the path of the storm in eight countries.  In the U.S., Hurricane Sandy affected 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard and west across the Appalachian Mountains to Michigan and Wisconsin, with particularly severe damage in New Jersey and New York.  Its storm surge hit New York City on October 29, flooding streets, tunnels and subway lines and cutting power in and around the city.  Damage in the United States amounted to $71.4 billion (2013 USD).

Sandy hit home for us because we watched as entire communities were wiped out - especially Staten Island and Long Beach.  My favorite place to walk my dog and enjoy an afternoon, the Freeport Nautical Mile, was wiped out.  Help was slow in coming - if it came at all.  It was a terrifying night with 80-90 mph winds.  My beloved Manhattan was devastated, the city was dark, subways and tunnels were flooded.  People all up and down the coast were in shock.  Long Island was hit hard - maybe the worst.  They told us not to drink the water.  I was lucky - one of the very few who didn’t lose power, water or cable.  For that, I was grateful.  I hope never to have to live through another storm of the century!