Editorial: The power of nature
Residents of coastal Virginia are coming up on the anniversary of two events most would rather not think about—the 80th anniversary of the storm of 1933 and the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Isabel.
The granddaddy of local storms, the benchmark by which other hurricanes in Gloucester and Mathews will always be measured, is the tempest that struck the two counties on Aug. 22-23, 1933. On the afternoon and evening of Tuesday, Aug. 22, a howling gale came out of the east. Winds mounted, and the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, its rivers and creeks rose higher and higher. The resultant damage was terrible. Many families lost all their possessions and, for some of the region’s watermen, their means of making a living.
By early on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 23, the winds changed direction from northeast to southeast, and a surge of water—a swell approximately 12 feet higher than high tide—reached its crest between 10 and 11 a.m., destroying everything in its wake.
"Never has there been such a storm here, certainly not in the memory of any living resident of the county. Accompanying the wind came a tidal wave which swept over more than half of the county. Points never touched by salt water before were flooded to a depth of several feet."
—Mathews Journal, Aug. 23, 1933
Damage was estimated in the hundreds of thousands; but one must remember, that was the height of the Great Depression. The cost in today’s dollars of such devastation might reach into the hundreds of millions.
Few are around today who can recall first-hand the sheer power of this cataclysmic event, and most of those who do were children at the time, too young to realize the scope of what they witnessed.
That’s not the case with the second anniversary. Isabel struck the Virginia coast on Sept. 18, 2003 with a fury almost rivaling the unnamed Great Storm of ’33. "Some properties were destroyed beyond repair. Many other residents watched the salt water creep to their foundations and up their steps, stopping just short of coming inside," the Gazette-Journal reported in its Sept. 25 issue. That same issue included preliminary damage figures, with 96 homes destroyed in Gloucester and 352 damaged. The Mathews building official estimated 25 destroyed homes and flood waters reaching 217 dwellings in his county. Those initial cost estimates for damage in the two counties totaled more than $20 million. Overall, the storm is estimated to have caused $1.85 billion in destruction.
The anniversary of these two storms should remind us (if we even need reminding) of the awesome and unpredictable power of nature. We should never take that for granted. Although the Atlantic may show no sign of hurricane activity at any given moment, those who dismiss the threat looming just offshore do so at their own peril.