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We've Lived Through This Before

Scared of stormy weather warnings? Read about how we weathered hurricanes in days of old compared to predictions of Irene's wrath.

Here we go again. Newscasters are warning residents of the east coast to batten down the hatches, close up your backyard umbrellas and board up the windows because we may be in for a rough ride. Huricane Irene is barreling our way, ready to wreak havoc ... or not.

According to Wikipedia, due to New Jersey’s location, few hurricanes have hit the state directly, but many have passed near enough to cause some damage. According to an estimate by meteorologist George Prouflis, the chances for a direct hit by a hurricane on the Jersey shore each year is one in 200.

Gov. Chris Christie declared a state of emergency on Thursday urging a voluntary evacuation of shore areas. He urged tourists to abandon their plans for a weekend trip to the Jersey Shore and for residents to instead immediately focus on hurricane preparedness. According to the National Hurricane Center, the forecast track of Hurricane Irene will cause significant impacts regardless of its exact course.

So, I went to the Red Bank Register archives to research other hurricanes and found the kind of article that makes this kind of painstaking, eyeball straining, scanning of old newspapers fun. 

Writing in the Register a few days after what was known as the 1944 Great American Hurricane,Ted Breton, of Ocean Avenue in the North Middletown section near Ideal Beach, brought the event to life. His first person narration is so colorful that I want to include it without comment.

"HELL AND HIGH WATER" was the headline. And Ted Burton wrote:

"Well, it is over and we're alive, thank God; but, oh, while it lasted!

The clock stopped at 7:30 o'clock, marking the high note in the symphony of hell and high water at Ideal Beach. We sat crouched around the oil stove until the water rose and then onto the table went the stove, the only source of light and heat, for the utilities were all kaput.

That stove gave a sickly glow which only accentuated the doom and when the water came seeping through the ceiling, even that source of light was doused and the only illumination came lightning flashes, and each disclosed another calamity.

As we waded about the living room we tried to kid ourselves into a jocular mood, but the phoniness was too evident and we went about the business of collecting steins jars and basins to put under the leaks.

During this procedure we got one real laugh. Gramps Runkel had put his dental plates in one of those jars; and when it was emptied out the window, a familiar rattle caused Gramps to exclaim, 'My teeth! And they coth me thickty thicks dollarth ($66). Goodneth grathouth, I'm toothleth!'

Crash! A tree falls against the chimney and the bricks come tumbling into the room through the fireplace. Crunch! A section of the Ideal Beach boardwalk scrapes against the window and floats a mile south to east through the kitchen door and from it leaps a stray dog, wet and woebegone. Our little Boston terrier gives battle, but the stranger prevails and wins a grudging sanctuary.

Woodley's pet goat enters; a horseshoe crab scuttles across the kitchen. Now if Chubby the cat was here with her kittens, the similarity to Noah and the ark would jell. Even the goldfish were swept from the pool on the lawn and deposited in the kitchen sink.

A flutter of wings at the window awakens again the thoughts of a dove with an olive branch, but it is only a wounded seagull.

'Chubby!' The poor ol' cat, was nurturing a series of 'blessed events' under the house and the trap door. A woman down the block has waded, pitcher in hand, out knee deep in the flood yelling, 'I can't get no water!'

Where a popular refreshment stand once stood runs a deep gully, and standing on the wreckage at the bottom of the gully a sign bravely proclaims: 'Basket Parties Welcome.'

Among the objects afloat on the floor is a big envelope stamped and addressed to, of all things at this time, 'Collector of Internal Revenue, Camden, N.J.' and in it is a check for income tax. What irony. That's like rubbing our nose In it! But, whoopee! Hold everything! What's that about 'Deductions for Flood Damage?' Uh-oh!

A baby carriage floated down Ocean Avenue; and nestling on its downy pillow a half-drowned rat with its paws around a nursing bottle, knawing at the nipple. I hope that bottle had a solution of corrosive sublimate and TNT.

A life-preserver marked 'Fort Hancock' settled on the entrance to the first aid squad, proving the eternal fitness of things—'er sump'n. That curse of all calamities — the thieving and ransacking looter — is among those present, carrying on his ghoulish trade. One of them made a raft of a 'Chick Sale' structure and was rifling the crushed and pathetic little bungalows of their pitiful chattels until the Middletown Township police (stopped them.)"

What would we do without writers like Ted Breton who make even the most tedious information readable?

According to Wikipedia, there have always been tropical storm alerts in this area, but very few of them have caused the kind of damage that this September 13 to 14, 1944 so-called Great American Hurricane did when it paralleled the coastline as a Category 2 hurricane, causing severe flooding.

The Red Bank Register reported on Sept. 21, 1944 that the Bayshore was badly hit:

"Highlands suffered property damage running into hundreds of thousands of dollars in the most disastrous storm that has even struck that borough; according to officials. The fact that there was no loss of life is spoken of by residents as miraculous. Some of the oldest watermen said they never witnessed such a high tide and such destruction by the flood and wind, which made homeless more than a hundred families residing between South Bay Avenue and Water Witch.

Property along Shrewsbury Avenue on the Shrewsbury riverfront was also hard hit and the private docks were washed away. The picking house and office of the Highlands shucking company, together with 2,000 cans used for shipping clams to market, was lost.

Otto Betz's Jackson hotel was damaged almost beyond repair. One of the Beattie bungalows on that avenue was partly torn apart. Spahn's machine shop was battered to bits. Two of Burdge brothers' bungalows on Miller street were washed away. Mr. Cowell's bungalow was blown over on the Harry A. Brown property and considerable damage to stock was done in the Neimark and Azzellina stores on Miller Street."

Another article in the same issue noted that:

"The tropical storm which struck this section around 4 o'clock Thursday afternoon reached its peak five hours later. In its wake it left blocked roads, fallen wires, disruption of utility services not only in scattered sections but to entire communities, and it also left a battered waterfront and flooded streets ...

Despite the intensity of the storm there were no casualties and this is attributed mostly to the fact that the section had been well warned that a hurricane was approaching.

Damage on the entire Jersey coast has been estimated at $33,000,000. The Bayshore area suffered along with the rest of the section."

Before 1944, it seems that the most distructive storm event in this area happened on Sept. 16, 1903. The Red Bank Register reported that the storm "which swooped down so on this locality this morning was one of the most severe that ever struck the Jersey coast. At Sandy Hook the wind's highest velocity was eighty miles an hour and the surf was higher than it has been for years."

Hurricane Donna caused havoc on Sept. 12, 1960 and is known as the only tropical cyclone to bring hurricane force winds to every state on the East Coast of the United States. When it passed through New Jersey, it was a Category 2 hurricane moving at a high speed. "Hundreds are reported homeless and preliminary damage estimates have mounted into the millions of dollars in the Northern Monmouth County area in the wake of yesterday's encounter with Hurricane Donna …," another Register story said.

Then on Sept. 27, 1985, another Category 2 event hit the Jersey coast and caused the evacuation of 95,000 people and closed 11 casinos in Atlantic City. At the time, it was dubbed by some as the storm of the century, but at last minute it veered off and spared most of New Jersey.

Fourteen years later, on Sept. 17, 1999, Hurricane Floyd crossed the entire state as a tropical storm, unleashing torrential rainfall amounting to a maximum of 13.34 inches causing a storm surge of 2.6 feet and left 650,000 without power.

September 19, 2003, Hurricane Isabel passed well to the southwest of the state, though because of the hurricane's large windfield, it did cause strong a storm surge that affected some parts of southeastern parts of the state.

According to Wikipedia, The effects of Hurricane Isabel in New Jersey in 2003 were overall moderate: limited to fallen trees, two deaths, and $50 million in damage. Isabel passed 215 miles southwest of the state, though its large wind core produced tropical storm force winds across much of the state.

The winds downed hundreds of trees and power lines, leaving hundreds of thousands without power. A falling tree killed one person. Hurricane Isabel produced rough waves and a moderate storm surge along the coastline. One person was killed from the rough waves, and at least 50 locations along the Jersey shore reported beach erosion from the hurricane.

An editorial in the September, 1944 Register talked about how man can overcome nature by patience and cooperation. "A storm such as we went through can at one fell swoop, lay low all that man has built but by untiring labor, we can rebuild, and do a better job than before," the editorial said. "Furthermore, we can learn from nature's destructful antics. We are now engaged in the task of rebuilding. A year from now, maybe it will be only a matter of months, all traces of the storm will have been removed …"

The exception is that our our memories are rekindled by what was written at the time.

I do remember many downed trees and huge branches as well as power outages that lasted for a couple of days in the aftermath of the 2003 storm.

Let’s hope that the statistics stay true and Hurricane Irene does not turn out to be the one in 200 that directly hits our coast. After all, every one of the storms that I’ve reported on happened in mid-September. It is still only late August. But then again, weather extremes seem to be the norm lately.

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