Something that many people don’t know about coastal living is how much we rely on oral history – people telling stories through the years to keep those stories alive.
Growing up on the Outer Banks, you couldn’t help but hear about the Ash Wednesday Storm. Sure, there have been lots of storms over the years worth shaking a stick at, but that one stood out among the rest. It’s the one people remember. The one they warn you about. The cautionary tale.
The other thing that people don’t know about coastal living is that not every bad storm is a hurricane, and not every hurricane is a bad storm. They don’t know how bad it can get on just a normal day.
“You’re not going out,” my dad might tell me. Or he might warn me against staying at a friend’s house on one of the neighboring islands, places where they’d block off the bridges if the wind got too bad.
“There’s a nor’easter comin’.”
Nor’easter. Most people up here, I’ve found, don’t even know what that is.
Sure, okay, the concept is easy enough. A storm from the North-East! Oooh! Spooky!
No. It’s more than that.
If I’m talking with friends up here and I mention I’ve been through hurricanes, the first thing anyone goes to is Katrina. They either think that nothing I have gone through could ever be as bad as that terrible, tragic storm, or they assume that’s normal for hurricanes. An astonishing number of people don’t realize just how frequent hurricanes are.
When Irene hit, I talked with a friend of mine who was scared that it was going to come her way. She lived up north. She was also scared that behind it was another storm forming. She was suddenly enlightened to the turmoil of the mid-Atlantic. I grew up tracking hurricanes, I know to expect four or five every year, more on a bad season. She had no idea. No idea that the average per year is eleven, though of course not all of those make landfall.
So when I talk to people about hurricanes, they’re terrified. When I tell them we worry more about Nor’Easters than hurricanes, they laugh. Nothing is worse than a hurricane, I’ve been told. Did a nor’easter cause Katrina?
Well, no. But nothing caused Katrina. Katrina caused damage. It doesn’t work like that.
Back home if you mention hurricanes everyone laughs and asks which one and will tell you an anecdote from their favorite party or that time they had to bunker down with a neighbor.
If you ask about Nor’Easters, it’s solemn faces.
Then they mention the Ash Wednesday Storm.
You have probably never heard of the Ash Wednesday Storm. That’s okay. The problem with oral history is that it is lost to people who can never hear it. I mean, it’s recorded, it’s been written down, and it only happened in 1962 so it wasn’t a dark era of media blackout or something, but most people just haven’t heard of it.
Which means that most people have never heard of the crazy amounts of damage and flooding that occurred. They’ve never heard that there were 40 fatalities across several states. They’ve never seen the pictures like this one or this one.
And, of course, they have never heard of a Nor’Easter.
A local news website from back home described the storm as a “yardstick against which all other storms are measured.” It’s true. Hurricanes, Nor’Easters, it makes no difference. It was one of the most devastating storms in Outer Banks history, of course we’d remember it. Even since moving up here I’ve seen photographs of things that have happened during other hurricanes and muttered to someone “Well it’s not as bad as the Ash Wednesday storm, that one was bad.”
I wasn’t there. My family wasn’t there. None of my friends were.
But the people who were have passed down these stories. They have saved the photographs, they have written books, they have told us. They have warned us. We are still able to know what happened because of the word of those who were there.
The sea is a strange, powerful, beautiful, dangerous thing. It can create where there was nothing, it can destroy everything. And it can be a beautiful scene. It creates stories.
If it interests you, I suggest you read up about the Ash Wednesday Storm. Learn a story that you, yourself can tell someone one day. To some, it’s almost an old wives tale or a folk story – but I assure you, it was very, very real.
A storm can be devastating without being a hurricane – and a story can be powerful without being wide spread or etched in stone. These stories are a part of me. Without being there, without my family being there, without ever having to cower in fear or wonder if my home would make it through the night – they are a part of me.
Your stories make you. The stories of those around you make you.
It’s up to you to pass them on.