One glorious and balmy summer weekend in the late 1990s, I sat in the house my parents built for their retirement, enjoying the spectacular view of Gardiner’s Bay. A flotilla of sailboats lilted in the wind, guided by red buoys that demarcated a channel in the otherwise shallow waters. My gaze shifted southeast, toward Napeague, the spit of land that separates the bay from the ocean. The air was so clear that beyond Napeague I could see cobalt and sapphire streaks of horizon. Giant, precise brushwork heralding the Atlantic.
I had heard that the land was so low it had flooded during the Hurricane of 1938. An old man who ran the local country store told my mother and me how the water had surged and churned, whipped by 160-mile-per-hour winds. The furious surf washed over Montauk Highway, temporarily splitting Napeague and Montauk from the rest of the South Fork. The man and his neighbors were caught unawares, he said, partly because the storm had rushed up the coast from Florida so fast that the weather service could barely track it. That’s why the hurricane became known as the Long Island Express.
But there was another reason why they were not forewarned.
“Before it hit — before the worst — we were glued to our wireless, because they were reporting about Chamberlain and Hitler negotiating,” he recalled, shaking his head and looking down at the worn shop counter. “Yep. And we were so darn scared of another world war, we tuned in only to that station. The storm warnings came in on the other channel. And them seas — they melted those sand hills just like you pour hot water on sugar.”
“The Sudetenland,” my mother said as we drove home. “Such a betrayal. We were listening to that news, too, in Krakow. We couldn’t believe it — that Chamberlain actually thought Hitler could be appeased.”
“People already knew there was no stopping him?” I asked.
“Some. Some did. Not knew, but had a sense. Especially after speech Hitler made at Nazi rally in Nuremburg. That was few weeks earlier.” She was dropping more articles than usual, I thought, as she reached back to her early teens in Poland. “And yet . . . who could imagine . . . what would happen to us. . . .”
My mother glanced away from the road for a moment toward the wetlands to the left, toward Louse Point, where the cliff our house was on sank toward an isthmus and the bay flowed into Accabonac Harbor. She was checking for a favorite osprey nest on one of the tall poles conservationists had placed in the marshes to help the endangered birds reproduce. She spotted the nest and returned her attention to the winding road, grasping the steering wheel hard.
“Nah. It never occurred to me that listening to news here could be dangerous,” she said.
“Just by choosing one station over another, I mean. So strange. Strange they had no idea such onslaught was coming.”
When I was growing up, my family quaked when northeasters slammed into the South Fork at high tide. In the late 1960s, my parents had debated whether to buy a small house on the ocean or build one on the bay. Ultimately, they constructed our house on an 80-foot bluff and added a bulkhead and jetty to safeguard our cliff from erosion and the sea.
To me it seemed mighty, with its tar-impregnated pilings planted six feet into the beach, and the same length sticking up. Joined together by rectangular planks, the seawall offered us only a semblance of security, however. The structure was vulnerable if water rushed over the top and support boards shattered from the force. That happened twice, during the ’70s and during Hurricane Gloria, in 1985. The sand had washed out as if through a sieve, and the angry waves of the usually placid bay carved out a cave where the cliff ought to have met the sand.
After the deluge Gloria brought, it took months for my mother to get permission from the local environmental agency to rebuild and refill the bulkhead. The fill had to come from the bay floor and that would disturb the mollusks and brooding boulders. The contractor reluctantly accepted the $25,000 job and postponed work again and again, as if to let my mom know he didn’t need the dough, especially from a widow. But we would put up with anything to stanch the recurring vision of our beloved house toppling into the bay because the encroaching edge had to satisfy the appetite of the sea.
My sisters and I reluctantly sold our parents’ dream house 13 years ago, not long after our mother died. It took me many seasons to stop worrying about our house, northeaster or not.
But as Hurricane Sandy smashed through the Eastern Seaboard, it blew me back in time. A hurricane churning into a northeaster during a full moon — what would my parents have thought? Two days after the storm struck New York’s coast, I scoured the Web for photos of Gardiner’s Bay. I found a video of whitecaps off Atlantic Avenue Beach, and a shot of Louse Point swamped, muddied, devastated. But I will never know how our seawall fared. And as far as I can tell, this time Napeague was not severed from the mainland.
Yet there is no escaping the fact of natural or human assault. And seawater will always remind us that sand melts like treacle.
Karen A. Frenkel is a science and technology journalist, editor, author, and producer. She is a Bloomberg.com and Bloomberg Businessweek contributor and writes regularly for FastCompany.com. She lives in Manhattan. This essay previously appeared in slightly different form on the Web site Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.