Wet Weather

The remnants of Hurricane Florence passed over East Hampton on Tuesday. Wind from the southwest, warm and heavy on the skin, whipped the flag above the village green. Leaves and tree limbs heaved and waved. Then came the rain, sudden and tropical, rivers running down the street to pool in low spots. 

This is the week, 80 years ago tomorrow, that the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 slammed into Long Island. The Atlantic surged over the dunes, breaking up more than 200 houses along Dune Road in Southampton Town and scattering the pieces across Shinnecock Bay. At Fort Pond Bay, the fishermen’s village built on the sand was cleared as if crumbs on a table. Then the storm moved inland, its relentless rain flooding New England and wreaking havoc.

Hurricane Florence has had much the same effect. Coastal damage from its winds and waves was substantial, but it paled in comparison to a sprawling disaster from flood waters. In the Carolinas, the Pee Dee River was expected to recede after cresting at 46.6 feet, nearly 20 feet above the flood stage. On the Waccamaw in South Carolina, the Charleston Post and Courier reported, the river was two feet higher than the level it hit during 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.

Close to 40 people have died as a direct result of the storm, including two inmates trapped in a prisoner transport van as the waters rose in Horry County, S.C. As happened after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, hundreds, if not thousands, more could lose their lives from the ancillary effects of power outages, loss of access to medical care, exertion, and lack of clean drinking water. A long-lasting threat will come from submerged farm waste and coal-ash containment lagoons, which have already begun to belch their toxic contents. Nearly all of the problems associated with Florence could have been avoided if communities had the foresight not to build in floodplains. But people in the South are no different from us in the North, who allow castles in the sand on dunes that will one day be overtopped in a giant storm once again.