Flotsam and Jetsam

Hurricane Hortense struck Nova Scotia a glancing blow on September 14-15, 1996. In our September edition, marine geophysicist Alan Ruffman examined the force and direction of the storm, the history of major hurricanes making landfall in Atlantic Canada, and the extent of -- or lack -- disaster prevention and planning. Writer Gary Knowles now takes us up close and personal on Tancook Island

Nimbus Cloud: A broad category of layered, low- to middle-altitude clouds from which precipitation is falling. It often extends over the whole sky, blocks out the sun, and is generally dark gray and amorphous in appearance.

Beaufort Scale of Wind Force -- Calm: Sea criterion, sea like a mirror. Land criterion. smoke rises vertically.

Light air: Sea criterion, ripples with the appearance of scales are formed but without foam crests. Land criterion, direction of wind shown by smoke drift but not by wind vanes.

By J. Gary Knowles


Hurricane Hortense was the first major early fall storm I experienced on the Island. A week or so earlier another tropical hurricane in its dying stages had passed close by. As it had neared Nova Scotia it was reclassified by weather observers as a "remnant of a tropical storm." "Heavy rains and high winds" were forecast. And there were, but the Islanders shrugged off the storm.

"Was a blow all right, but my garden's fine,"

"Yeah, I couldn't get out fishin',"

"My garden's waterlogged . . . and it's been like that all summer."

It didn't have much consequence on the Island and there was minimal effect on the mainland. For most of the Island boats, fishing days were not lost, since they were already constrained by Fisheries Department quotas enforced upon particular skippers. I found a few of my lofty broad bean plants bent low; some large, leafy potato plants flattened to the contours of the mounded rows; and young apple seedlings a little loose in the soil from being buffeted and whirled around by the wind. That was about it. The storm had apparently come from the southeast, and my house and gardens on the Cove were sheltered by the few village houses close by, some outbuildings, a low hill and tall spruce trees to the southwest and west.

Hortense was a different matter. It struck with a might that was not altogether expected. With the approaches of the previous storms I'd loosely tracked their paths as reported in the newspapers or on television. The local replacement captain for the ferry even tracked them with the help of the Internet. The storms usually began in the vicinity of the Gulf of Mexico, passing northwards offshore from the southern states of the United States, often crossing the coastline and traveling inland for a time, losing power. Erratic paths. Sometimes they retreat to the Atlantic. Whatever the case, they generally move steadily northwards towards into or past New England and on to the Maritimes. As they are propelled northward, they also lose their energy. Often, they dissipate before reaching Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hurricanes (variously called cyclones in parts of the Southern Hemisphere or typhoons in the North Eastern Pacific) are products of the ocean. They are not borne of continents or land masses but, rather, they are conceived and birthed in places where islands exist. Oceans. Specifically, warm tropical oceans; the warmer the better. Their massive, white pinwheel cloud shapes, as seen and captured by satellite cameras encircling the planet, are characteristic. At the centre is the eye of the storm, a void as it were, the calm within the storm violence. Like a huge towering chimney, the eye reaches upward and is the conduit for action and transference of latent energy. In the early stages of a hurricane's development, though, the eye and the surrounding cloud mass are not so pronounced, although the eye is always evident.

Low-pressure areas develop over very warm tropical seas and warm moist air is swept up through the centre chimney flue. As drier air takes its place it too becomes moisture-laden and is sucked up the flue. Over time the process is magnified and magnified again in scope and power. As this circulation of air is amplified even further and the rising water-vapour-laden air is cooled and condenses, large amounts of latent heat are released into the lower atmosphere and the low pressure centre of the emerging hurricane -- the eye -- intensifies and the resulting clouds of condensed moisture begin to shape into a huge spiral as they spin counterclockwise. Always counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere. In time, perhaps from a few hours to days, the hurricane grows into what has often been described as a cohesive mass of spiraling air currents and clouds that, from a view high above, looks as much like a gigantic donut as it does a Chinese pinwheel firecracker and its whirling, trailing smoke. Within this mass are raging winds that reach their greatest velocities at the very wall of the chimney flue, and diminish towards the outer edges of the donut-cum-pinwheel. At the centre of the flue, it is calm; at the wall of the flue circular winds may reach 300 km (186 miles) per hour and can be as wide as 200 km (125 miles) or more.

Hurricanes are no small aberration in weather patterns! Such an outer world view, though, doesn't depict the great height and force of this atmospheric phenomenon. Nor is the ultimate power of this profound kind of air movement realized by an academic portrait.

My description belies the incredibly complicated and inherently unpredictable nature of hurricanes. As I look over my writing I'm reminded of the hurricane's order and progression, yet I also understand that the movement and influence of these atmospheric events are chaotic and fragile; chaotic in the sense of being unstable and idiosyncratic, and fragile in the sense of being easily modified, easily disrupted. Changes of water temperature, passage over land or presence of other systems are likely to dramatically (and chaotically) change the way this unique weather system behaves. The view from the surface of the earth, however, is much different. Ask any sailor. Ask any islander.

The early part of the day on which the whirling forces of Hortense hit the Island was unmemorable. Heeding the weather report, I paid attention to the garden, the yard and the buildings: I looked over the vegetable garden; I tied supports to some tall herbs; I checked the stakes of the broad beans and the climbing beans; I locked the storm door on the garden shed and put up the storm shutters on its meshed, paneless window frames; I closed the nearly horizontal basement hatch and weighted the doors with a large boulder; I stacked most of the outdoor furniture in the shed; I secured all the house windows and their screens; and I visually checked the house and noted a host of minor maintenance items that needed my attention. The distinctive spiraling cloud formations were not evident. Nor could I see anywhere in the sky the passage of a chimney flue. But the barometer dropped, and it dropped dramatically, a sure indicator of the coming nearness of the eye. The birds knew about the potency of the approaching storm -- they disappeared to the safety of cover.

I had awakened early to a brisk wind and occasional light rain and, as the hours passed, the wind and rain gradually increased in intensity. By noon, indecipherable, menacing gray clouds covered the sky and it remained that way for the rest of the day, although as is typical of a hurricane, the wind's direction shifted throughout the day: from a strong sou'easterly to easterly to nor'easterly to northerly to nor'westerly. The sou'easterlies stream over the island to the Cove, the nor westerlies, compass opposite, rage directly in over the longest fetch of water in the bay. By nightfall the hurricane's winds were nearly at their peak and the incoming tide was running. The rain was steady -- sheets of it. The storm was hitting "gale force" on the Beaufort Scale. I retreated to the house, happy to weather out the storm, confident that the house and I would survive.

It was about 9pm now and the wind was tugging at the house with a mighty fury that I'd not experienced since the tropical storms encountered while living in the Fiji Islands some 19 years earlier. "Well," I thought, "this is a tropical storm after all." As I talked to myself, I acknowledged the great literal and emotional distance in the substance of my thoughts. And, I was reminded of just how complacent modern humans are about predicted natural phenomena, especially those that are weather-related. "No big deal!" Then I listened.

The house had a great number of rattles and sounds I'd not heard before, and I could tell it was straining at its foundations. I remembered reading in Annie Proloux's The Shipping News about the protagonist's family house being secured to the bedrock on which it sat by heavy metal cables with their anchor bolts drilled deep into the solid stone. Such were the brutal winter gales of the Newfoundland North Atlantic coast. Such security sounded great. Then I thought, "We're not that much further south." I wandered through the house, from room to room, checking the windows and expecting to find leaks in the ceilings. None. Apart from a small puddle just inside the door that leads to the deck on the second floor, there was no sign of water penetration. Upstairs, though, the passage of the wind around the dormers and other architectural protrusions of the old fisher's house created a howling and whistling, and the noise of the smashing surf on the shore was amplified, sounding as though it was being generated right inside the house. These were sounds I could only hear in a very muffled way downstairs. It was only a little alarming, though. I imagined that this was one of the idiosyncrasies of the old dwelling. Wind noises. I retreated downstairs. "So far so good." The house was weathering the storm. "Perhaps there's no need for cables after all," I kidded myself.

* * *

Almost at that moment there was a decided thump. It was a theatrical bump. Orchestrated just at the precisely right moment, as if in response to my thoughts, as if to wake me out of a kind of complacent security. It was followed soon after by another. And another. The house shook. It crackled and popped. The old kitchen trembled, and so did the dishes and glasses on the open wall shelves. Like so many other old houses in this area, the kitchen is a kind of adjunct to the main part of the 150-year-old Cape Cod. (Although, to be honest, I can't tell which was built first, the kitchen or the house.) Explosive gusts buffeted the front, sea-facing walls and the vehement air streamed over, around, and even through the house. Cracks that I thought were sealed became draftways, enough to fan a fire. Fire! I put that thought out of my mind pretty quickly since there is no fire service on the Island. (The local volunteer brigade, I'm told, was disbanded several years ago, for reasons that I don't quite understand. At any rate, a house fire in this storm, despite the rain, would mean instant destruction.) I shuddered.

At some point soon after, the power and telephone wires started ringing. Ringing loudly. Not the regular ring, though. Wires. Outside. With alarm I looked out from the back doorstep. There I heard a pulsating oscillating whistle, a whining and wheezing, as the wires were whipped and whirled around, appearing like the violent writhings of a worm on the end of a fishing hook. The alternating humming ringing, conducted inside through the vibrations at the terminal boxes, verged on being disorienting.

Outside, across the spray-plumed Cove, I saw motor vehicle headlights and other lights flashing on the government wharf. It was now about 10 pm, high tide. It wasn't just an ordinary high tide that the Islanders expected, though. It was a spring tide, coinciding with the pull of a full moon -- a tide that runs much higher, a tide that promised -- with this gale-force wind pushing it on to the shore -- to cause considerable damage. Fishermen were obviously checking their vessels at the storm-protected pier. Moored in the lee, the fleet of Cape Islander fishing boats was safe, I assumed, although I didn't know for sure. The ferry, also it seemed, was safely tied up. I rushed indoors, anxious to get out of the driving wind and sheets of rain.

Inside, the kitchen vibrated even more than before. The stove flue rattled at its junction with the creosote-stained brick and mortar chimney. Dishes rattled on the antique pine kitchen table. I feared losing the family's heirloom collection of teacups, saucers and plates which were sitting, now precariously, on the open shelves above the countertop. Most of all, though, I feared that the kitchen would take flight, move off its foundations, part from the house and the chimney, lose the roof. (Outside, I discovered next morning, the small outbuilding we call The Writing Shed had lost a large portion of its tar-shingled roof to Hortense. But, in the darkness at a few minutes after 10 pm, I didn't know that.)

I decided to go outside to experience Hortense. Spread-eagle to the storm. I vividly remembered reading John Muir, the naturalist, describe climbing a redwood or a sequoia at the height of a storm in the Sierra Nevadas. I'd even tried doing that myself in a storm, in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah on a ridge that overlooks the Heber Valley in the far distance. I was exhilarated at being atop a small ponderosa pine as the winds raged around me. Later, when I told students in my environmental education class at the Uni-versity of Utah of my encounter with an early summer non-electrical storm in the mountains, they looked at me with puzzled expressions. So I didn't tell them, then, the details! I moved on to discuss other topics.

On this particular Hortense night, the spray from the spuming sea shot upwards in great plumes, like white feathers in an elaborate, ostentatious woman's hat illuminated brightly by the lights from the house and my flashlight. Almost phosphorescenct. Every few seconds a new creation was formed. Hats galore. Then, amid the deafening, cacophonous noise of the collapsing waves on the shore -- running high up on to the grassy verge above the rocks -- I realized there was another noise. It was the noise of rumbling rocks, as in a pebble polishing tumbler but only much louder and more pronounced. It was the sound -- usually musical, but not tonight -- of large round, smooth, water-washed stones rolling over and over each other on the boulder beaches so common here except that rolling rocks don't exist on this part of the shoreline.

Changing the direction of my gaze of wonderment I noticed that the ballast end of the old family pier was no longer attached to the land end of the pier. In fact, most of the 20-metre pier was demolished, many of its wide, thick planks tossed up like toothpicks on the shore, others dipping and diving floating ramrods, pounding the anchored timbered remains of the pier and the old slipway just below my neighbour's fish store. The ballasted end, full of rocks from this very shore, was being tossed about as though it consisted of only lumber. That was the rolling, grinding sound. It was washed up into the tidal zone of the shore, just a few metres from the bank which, now, was being gnawed at by the erosive, furious sea. In the shafted, rain-splattered light of my flashlight, the two-metre or more waves were rolling almost at right angles to the old pier; little wonder it was demolished, although it had apparently been there for many years.

I followed the crested waves with my light -- all the way to the shoreline further along the cove where there is another fish store. Even in the wet darkness the red ochre walls of the long timber building stood in contrast to the white, reflective spray dancing high above. The waves were breaking on the back sea-facing wall of the store. From where I was situated, I could see headlights from a truck beaming valiantly into the black and glancing off the tops of the crests. I knew instinctively that an elderly neighbor was checking his property. I found him there alone, struggling against the waves and wind, pulling his large outboard motored dinghy further inshore. Dressed in heavy-weather fisher's hat and clothing (sou'westers) he was engaged in serious work for a man of his age. I helped him haul the hull to higher ground. He was concerned for the safety of his, now, only substantial link with his long-time fishing career; a four-metre craft with stern and outboard motor facing the sea, prone to damage by floating logs and other debris. We acknowledged each other and talked very briefly. In the dark I noted, in comparison to his apparel, my lightweight clothing. Although it was not particularly cold, I felt incongruous and even out of place on this horrible Hortense night. For a split second I wondered whether I was a "real" Islander. "Clothes don't make the man," I heard my mother say. Then the thought left me. We parted. He to his house, I to mine.

With the rain sheets skirting across the surf to the south shore of the cove, the waves wildly washing flotsam and jetsam high above the tidal zone, and the house groaning under the strain of the hurricane, I went to bed. Retiring seemed the best way to handle the storm, but I slept fitfully.

Dawn brought a clear, almost calm day. Even the sea was relatively quiet, though it was muddy and green immediately out in the cove. Scores of floating logs dotted the water. The hurricane had passed by, breaching land nearly 75 km to the north. The morning brought an early telephone call from a new come-from-away neighbour checking on damage. "None," I said, not realizing that the roof covering of the shed had blown off and was many metres away. The slope down to the sea by the old fish store, though, was littered in debris, as were parts of the rocky shoreline to the west. Both Nature and humankind had provided the rubbish: plastic in all shapes, forms and colours; planks, beams and piles from wharves (apparently many of the piers along the western shores of the Island were demolished and all those upwind from the cove seemed to have their debris beached on my shoreline); parts of fishing boats, such as two wooden hatches and wheelhouse covers; fishers' equipment, including parts of lobster traps and apparel such as work gloves and rubber boots; floating glass containers in several shapes and sizes; piles of seaweed, or as the Islanders call it, "sea dung" (because it used for mulch on the gardens); and, a great amount of plant debris from storm broken trees and branches to upcove neighbours' garden refuse that had been placed near the water's edge.

* * *

I found the vegetable garden to have got by relatively unscathed. I was surprised, given that it is only five or six metres from the sea at the nearest point, although it is protected by a low picket fence. Some potatoes, beans, peas and other tall plants were lying low. The main thing was the intense burning on all the plants. All plants. Vegetable leaves were seared at the edges and now starting to curl; grass was burned as a vein or artery is sealed with a laser beam; and herbs were shriveled at their ends. All of them had tinges of dark green going black at the edges, not unlike frost burnings in the early fall.

It turned out that the house and the property survived the storm relatively well as did most of the Island apart from some gardens, large trees and the wharves, of course. Soon after, a parade of Islanders went by in their cars and trucks. After inspecting damage throughout the Island or forking huge piles of sea dung into pickup trucks, the flurry of morning activity ceased and the normal rhythm of the place soon resumed. Even so, clean-up took several days on my rocky shoreline. The storm had been and gone. Left its mark. "Worst storm since the Groundhog Day storm of '76 . . ." my oldtime fishstore neighbour declared. Marks on the Island, marks on Island lives. I, of course, had to fix the roof of the shed.

When he's not teaching environmental studies at the University of Toronto or St. Francis Xavier University, Gary Knowles and partner Ardra Cole commute to Tancook Island where they recently launched a new publishing company, Backa-long Books / North West Cove Productions