A planeload of officials and reporters searched much of the Eastern Seaboard yesterday for damage from Hurricane Gloria, but found little more than downed power lines, splintered piers and a few roofless houses.
"I'm amazed that the damage is this slight," said Richard E. Hallgren, director of the National Weather Service, as he peered down on the path taken by the putative "killer storm" Gloria the day before. "When you come right down to it, the East Coast of the United States was miraculously saved an awful lot of grief."
Along the way, as the twin-engine Navy turboprop flew at 500 feet, the damaged boardwalks at Ocean City, Md., and Atlantic City, N.J., and the other occasional damage were the exception rather than the rule. If Gloria had left a message, it was hard to see in the 400 miles of coast from Maryland to Rhode Island.
Above Fire Island, N.Y., Hallgren looked from side to side trying to find a house in the still-surging surf or a mass of driftwood that would mark a roof torn to shreds. A lonely sailboat lay on its side near the island's inland bay, tossed there by the 80 mph winds that endured two hours Friday when the eye of the hurricane crossed the island.
"By the time Gloria came through here, the storm was moving north at 40 miles an hour," Hallgren said. "That's a very fast-moving storm, which was a blessing because it didn't linger anywhere" to inflict the kind of buffeting punishment that slow-moving hurricanes do. Hallgren counted the other blessings he said spared the East Coast a battering. The tide was low, producing a difference of four feet in the size of the waves pounding the beaches at the height of Gloria's fury. "The 1938 hurricane that killed more than 400 people and left boats in the streets of Providence followed the same path and packed roughly the same winds that Gloria did," Hallgren said. "The big difference was that the 1938 storm came at high tide."
Hallgren said he believes the greatest blessing was that the eastern edge of the hurricane, which packed the strongest winds, passed over the open ocean. Hallgren said winds of more than 100 mph raised waves higher than 40 feet in the open sea. He said the western edge of the storm, with winds of no more than 60 mph, was the part that passed over land.
"Hurricanes are like baseball games," Hallgren said. "Their outcomes are matters of inches."
As the Navy plane, the "City of Annapolis," made its way up the coast from the high-rise buildings of Ocean City to the mansions of Newport, R.I., the spotty nature of the storm damage unfolded.
The supporting pilings were all that was left of Ocean City's boardwalk, as if a giant hand had peeled away its topside. But no buildings seemed damaged and none of the boardwalk amusement rides seemed touched, leading the copilot of the airplane to crack, "That's either a radar antenna or a Ferris wheel."
Farther up the coast near Rehoboth Beach, Del., the only sign of a storm was the mounds of sand packed high along the back of the beach and the rivers of water cutting through the dunes to the sea. People were walking the beach, checking foundations and pilings.
Cape May came next, then Atlantic City where the casinos had reopened for business. The boardwalk looked as if it had been through a storm, but was not as damaged as the boardwalk at Ocean City. Beachfront property the length of New Jersey appeared to have been spared.
Long Island was different. After Fire Island came Westhampton Beach, where at least 20 houses along fashionable Dune Road were demolished, their wood frames strewn like matchsticks along the sand.
In one stretch, every fifth house had lost its roof. A circular condominium complex had no roof. The La Ronde Beach Club was torn apart and a nearby row of 20 condominiums was roofless, leaving shreds of pink insulation across the road like cotton candy. All that was left of a neighboring house was one wall.
"What's curious is that the destruction is so random; there's no pattern to it," Hallgren said. "It's as if the storm selected the homes that had weak spots. That's all it takes when you're facing a hurricane."
But the destruction stopped at Westhampton. The more fashionable towns to the east in Southampton, Bridgehampton and Easthampton appeared untouched.
The only damage visible from the air in these three communities were swatches of dock floating in Peconic Bay. It was the same for the mansions of Newport.
Meanwhile, Gloria blew quietly into history yesterday over Canada, dissolving into harmless gusts of less than 40 mph over the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Gloria left almost 2 million people in 10 states without electric power. In most regions of the Northeast, power was expected to be restored by last night, although some areas of Connecticut and Long Island could be without electricity for another week.
"The damage to power lines is very severe," said Carol Clawson, a Long Island Lighting Co. official. "It is the worst storm ever to hit our electrical system."