After the Storm

Aug 8, 2017

Credit Cape Cod National Seashore Park Service

When, along with hundreds of others, I arrived at a barricaded Coast Guard Beach the morning after the storm, the air was full of metaphors of war. The beach, people said, looked as though it had been strafed and bombed.

Today’s essay comes from Robert Finch's account of The Great Blizzard of 1978.

The line of wrecked cottages reminded some of the older men of Dresden and other European cities after World War II. From one of the remaining cottages, just beyond where the parking lot had been, the owners were hurriedly loading boxes, blankets and furniture into a waiting Jeep. Someone said they looked like a family of refugees, or a small army unit retreating from a Pacific islet. Over the beach shack a tattered flag still flew bravely. The general consensus was that the scene was one of total destruction.

The images struck me as exaggerated and inexact, though they certainly expressed the sense of awesome power conveyed by the effects of monumental tides and massive surf. But why, I thought, this emphasis on destruction? Great storms, after all, are nothing new on this beach. In 1928 Henry Beston, describing his own stay on this beach in his classic book, The Outermost House, wrote of ‘the great northeast storm of February 19th and 20th, which, like this one, produced record tides and severe cuts in the dune walls of the barrier beach.

On Monday the storm had broken through the upper end of the beach, smashing apart the large National Seashore parking lot located there. The tide caught a Volkswagen lingering in the lot, swamped its engine and floated it (minus its owner) out into the marsh where it sank. The enormous waves heavily battered and undermined the public bathhouse, but the structure survived the first onslaught. The following day the massive surf rammed it again and again, while a crowd on the hill cheered with each crashing wave. The mile and a half of barrier dunes, was virtually flattened. Storm surges cut sheer twenty-foot-high gouges in the dunes, and from Fort Hill across the marsh the long spit looked like a series of small mounded islands. Five of the eight remaining beach cottages were carried off. Some were totally destroyed, some had floated out and were sitting now like houseboats in the marsh. One had been carried all the way across to the town landing on the mainland side a mile to the west. One of those destroyed was the Outermost House.

Credit Cape Cod National Seashore Park Service

I first heard about it Tuesday morning when a friend called up and asked, ‘Did you hear the Outermost House perished?’ All at once the storm turned serious, creating a loss that mattered. His choice of words was curiously appropriate. Its passing somehow deserved a term usually reserved for souls, thoughts and principles of human liberty.

Now I stood with the crowd, looking down the changed beach, thinking of that house, the remains of which had been scattered and swept out to sea through Nauset Inlet. Henry Beston would have understood and assented. Twenty years after his stay there ‘the little house” he wrote, "to whom the ocean has been kind,’ had already been moved back once from the beach. He had no expectations for its immortality. The house had been but the shell for the book. He knew where it was he lived.