Jeanne McManus, a former Post editor, is an occasional contributor to the op-ed page.
In the last week of August, in the fading hours of a brilliant day, I sat on the sand at Bethany Beach, full of regret that I had to leave the next morning. My family calls this time of day “the golden hours,” when the setting sun has lost its intensity and its remaining light, now at our backs, puts the ocean and the beach in an amber glow, and everything seems right with the world. A cocktail helps, too.
During that visit, the beach had seemed exceptionally wide and healthy, as if all of the restoration work to undo the effects of wind and erosion, the human efforts to battle against the forces of nature, had actually succeeded. The water was exceptionally clear, free of the sludgy ring and jellyfish that sometimes thrive with the warming temperatures of an August ocean. The sandbar that had disappeared decades ago seemed to be reestablishing itself, to the point where you could swim out in shallow water to breaking waves way beyond the lifeguard’s stand. The difference between high and low tide was calculable, instead of thumping waves pounding the shore into the same steep ridge at the same spot, day after day, regardless of the tide charts.
That evening I took a photo of closed umbrellas, their backs so illuminated by the setting sun that they cast deep, almost violet shadows on the sand in front of them. Beach chairs had been casually abandoned at the water’s edge, sandy towels rumpled all around them. In the last days of summer, that particular spot of the world seemed immune from strife.
This morning I have been online, tracking images near that same stretch of beach. On the Bethanycam, which sits on the boardwalk in the heart of town, the image of the beach is, at best, a Seurat drawing, a gray impression to which someone has applied a thick wash. Sky, water, dune grass and sand are one; I can distinguish only the hazy edge of the boardwalk railing, the ghostly blur of a bench. They may not last long.
Then my Internet connection lapses, and I am left with an empty frame surrounded by colorful ads from the sunny days, of beach restaurants and oceanfront real estate, of golf clubs and vacation rentals.
Forecasters have named this mess Frankenstorm and compared it to the Perfect Storm of 1991, another violent confluence of weather systems: part hurricane, part nor’easter with a cyclone thrown in. Today’s storm, the one pounding outside my window, reminds me more of the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, a complex cocktail of pressure systems coupled with the spring equinox and high tides. Its Lenten arrival left some of us wondering whether civilization, or at least the mid-Atlantic, was meant to do penance for its sins. It was the first time I realized the fury of nature, its capacity to erase completely a patch of the world. And I wasn’t the only one. That storm made beachfront developers reconsider their construction plans along the Maryland and Delaware shoreline, if only for a while. When we went back to the beach, weeks later, all that was left of a friend’s cottage in South Bethany was a sewage pipe, sticking up alone in a bleak, ravaged landscape as barren as the moon.
Up and down the coast, the fury of Sandy rages as I write. Cities and towns are getting hammered, transportation and businesses have been crippled. Lives are endangered. Yet my first thought is of that fragile stretch of beach that I left behind on that gorgeous August afternoon. We say goodbye, we say, “See you tomorrow,” often forgetting that everything can change in a day.