Tuesday October 30, 2012

PITTSFIELD

The infrequency of the damaging effects of a tropical hurricane in the Berkshires caused an editorial writer for the Berkshire Evening Eagle to refer to one such big storm in 1938 as being "misplaced" because the area is about 140 miles inland from the ocean. But the effects of that storm and storms like Sandy are not misplaced freaks of nature.

These storms are normal, natural weather events which recur with regularity in some places, and at irregular times in places like the Berkshires in the grand scale of time and nature. The natural energies that cause these storms with their damaging effects are continually at work in nature. According to scientists, one decent-sized such storm releases the energy equivalent of 500,000 atomic bombs. The powerful energy of a storm like Sandy has destructive consequences when it is driven well inland, as this storm is, by the flow of the jet stream and the blocking effect of a strong high pressure system.

The infrequency of such large tropical storms having a destructive effect well inland in New England makes this cause and effect seem improbable. Edward Rowe Snow, a noted chronicler of New England lore, pointed out that once in each of the last four centuries, a severe such storm has battered New England and New York. These were the hurricanes of 1635, 1815 and 1938, and the gale of 1723. It remains to be seen whether Sandy is such a storm for the 21st century.

The 1938 hurricane is still the storm by which all such storms are measured in New England. It roared ashore in central Long Island on Sept. 21 and its effects were far inland. According to the Berkshire Evening Eagle, there was extensive damage in the Lakewood area, West Housatonic Street, Holmes Road and Merrill Road areas in Pittsfield, which were inundated by flood waters. In Northern Berkshire the flood damage exceeded $2.5 million. This storm caused some 600 deaths, including one each in Pittsfield, Adams, and Williamstown.

The first known inhabitants of the Americas considered the damaging effects of severe tropical storms and hurricanes as an act of a God turning nature into an ugly, punishing force. The Maya, according to historians, called their God who did this "Jurakan" and sacrificed humans to him in an effort to stop damaging winds. West Indian natives called the hurricane maker "huracan" which meant evil spirit.

Explorers from Eastern Europe did not know about tropical storms and hurricanes until they began to sail to the Americas in the hurricane season in the 15th century. One wonders if they would have traveled in their primitive boats if they knew of these storms. These storms form off the coast of Africa and then travel on a westerly and northwesterly tract in the Atlantic Ocean to the east coast of America and then either go ashore or turn northeasterly to peter out in the ocean.

The early Spaniards considered themselves superior to the American natives in intelligence but they too resorted to their own sort of divine magic to try to ward off the destructive effect of these storms. As these storms seemed to peak in October, the month in which they honored St. Francis of Assisi, who wore a knotted cord around his waist, these early Spaniards imitated his cord by placing little ropes with three knots in their doorways during the hurricane season.

Today, we have not developed anything better to control such storms. One of the humbling lessons from such storms is that our presence on this earth is still fragile when it comes to natural forces. Despite our scientific advances, we have not been able to master all of the destructive forces of nature, and we might just as well blow horns, beat drums, and place knotted ropes at our doors to try to avoid the destructive whims of Mother Nature.

I do not seriously suggest that these methods work. But the important point about these storms was made by David E. Fisher in his book, "The Scariest Place on Earth -- Eye to Eye with Hurricanes," that the early natives of the Americas and the Spaniards were just about as effective in avoiding or preventing the destructive effect of tropical storms and hurricanes, as we are today because they are an integral part of nature we have to live with.

These storm events, according to Wallace Kaufman and Orrin H. Pilkey, Jr. in their book, "The Beaches Are Moving -- The Drowning of America’s shoreline," are not disasters in nature but normal events in the grand scale of time recurring more or less regularly. But people, whose lives are too short to experience these events as such periodic and normal natural events, view them as acts of God, misplaced storms, or freak storms.

Robert "Frank" Jakubowicz, a Pittsfield lawyer, is a regular Eagle contributor.