As an insurance agent these past twenty years I have been keenly sensitive to the barrage of hurricanes that have pummeled this area since the last era of storms began with Hurricane Bertha in 1994. Because of the time and effort involved in reporting and responding to the claims that result, each one of them has a special niche carved into my memory.
My father who lived to be almost ninety-three years old experienced several periods of intense hurricane activity, and he too had stories to tell about what those storms meant to a waterman who supported his family with a boat tied to a mooring at the shore. But although he had memories of each of them, there was one storm that stood out far beyond all the rest. It occurred when he was still a young man, but married with three small children, and living in a new white frame house that was less than two hundred feet from the shores of Back Sound.
He sometimes called it the “Storm of ‘33", but more often he referred to it by the name of the downeast fisherman who lost his life in the storm, Jimmy Hamilton. Every blow, every nor’easter, every tropical storm and hurricane, was measured against the “Jimmy Hamilton Storm,” and always, in his mind, paled in comparison.
He would tell vivid stories of the howling winds that caused the walls of his house to shimmer; the rising tides that surrounded his father’s and his brother’s homes, and that reached his own back yard; the rapid ebbing of the water that he eventually learned was the result of an inlet (later called Barden’s Inlet) having broken through near the Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
But for some reason, at least to me, none of those stories resonated as much as the account of what he saw and heard when the winds finally died down, and the people of his neighborhood ventured out to see what had been wrought, and especially what had been left, by the monster storm. The humor, the irony, the serenity that is evidenced in that tale captures for me in one simple story much of what made life for the people of our Island so special (and so memorable.)
As told by my father, the winds began around sundown, and shortly after midnight abated enough that he took Mama and the children (Ralph, Ella Dee & June) across the path to the home of Cliff & Cottie (Carrie) Guthrie. Even though Cliff’s house was even closer to the shoreline, it was bigger and higher off the ground. When he got there he found that several other families had the same idea, and a group of over twenty gathered on the chairs, around the table, and on the floors of Cliff & Cottie’s living room. Soon thereafter the winds returned and for another three hours the storm-weary group looked, listened and worried.
Finally, just before morning, the winds died out and left an eery calm as the sun rose over Eastard Banks. The new day shed its light on the damage left by what would prove to be the biggest storm for more than half a century. What they saw when they stepped out on the south-facing back porch of Cliff’s house was as follows; trees including mighty oaks, had been uprooted, boats had been torn from their moorings and were lodged in the brush and thickets near the shore; livestock from the Banks, including horses, cows, and sheep had been drowned as they were washed across the channel such that their carcasses dotted the shoreline; porch posts & planks, shingles, and siding that been blown or washed off homes were strewn in piles on almost every sound-front yard.
Yet amid all of this, what my father and the others recalled the best, and told about most often, was what he observed standing on the back-door stoop of the home of Hinckley & Polly Guthrie. Their home was at the Landing, and between the shore and Cliff’s porch where the storm-weary group had gathered. Indeed, Hinckley and Polly were among those who had assembled next door. But left behind in their home had been “Tom C”, Polly’s aged father who had gone to bed as usual the night before and no one had heard from since.
As he stepped out on his porch that early “morning after,” of the greatest storm most of them would ever experience, he paused for a moment to observe the desolation that surrounded him, including a silver maple tree that had fallen at the very foot of his porch steps.
With his thin white hair gathered in the middle from a long night on a pillow, and wearing nothing but the faded burgundy union suit (longjohns) that had been his night clothes, “Tom C” rubbed his eyes to wipe-away the sleep, and make sure that he really was seeing what had at first appeared to him. Then looking to the north and the group of family and friends that were staring in his direction from across his back yard, he asked, “Has there been a blow or something?”