Hurricane Rakes New England, Loses Some ForceBy Michael Specter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 20, 1991; Page A01
© The Washington Post
CHILMARK, MASS., AUG. 19 -- Hurricane Bob shut down much of New England today, unleashing rain and wind gusts to 138 mph and forcing tens of thousands of bewildered vacationers to abandon cars, cottages and boats to seek safety in hastily established shelters.
Authorities attributed the deaths of a train conductor in Scarsdale, N.Y., and two swimmers -- one off Myrtle Beach, S.C., and the other off Holden Beach, N.C. -- to the storm. Fewer than two dozen injuries were reported.
By late last night, however, the storm had dropped below hurricane strength as it passed through Maine toward Canada. At 11 p.m., the National Weather Service reported that Bob, now a tropical storm, was near Bangor, Maine, and moving north-northeast at 30 mph with maximum sustained winds of about 70 mph. To be classified as a hurricane, a storm must maintain sustained winds of at least 74 mph. The weather service said the storm was expected to continue to weaken as it moved at about 30 mph.
Earlier, Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. (R) had ordered evacuation of residents living within a quarter mile of the coast, forcing many Portland residents to seek emergency shelter. Portland, the state's largest city, received more than 7 1/2 inches of rain.
"It's blowing, and it's beginning to get scary," said Mark LeDuc, a legislative aide to McKernan, in late afternoon. But by 10 p.m., winds in Augusta had subsided to less than 40 mph, although Bob remained "an impressive storm," LeDuc said. There was flooding and downed trees but no loss of life or serious injuries in the state, he said.
President Bush, after joking with reporters that the approaching storm "wouldn't scare us a bit," left his seaside home at Kennebunkport, Maine, shortly after noon and returned to the White House to monitor events in the Soviet Union.
Rather than risk a helicopter flight, Bush made his way to Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H., in a motorcade that closed access to Interstate 95, a major New England thoroughfare, and lengthened miles-long backups at some interstate ramps as thousands of people moved inland.
About 90 minutes after the president departed, Barbara Bush and other members of the family left Kennebunkport for the inland home of a friend, the Associated Press reported. The Bushes' 26-room house was boarded up, and Secret Service agents stayed to guard it.
After emergencies were declared early this morning in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut, the three states were virtually closed by noon to business or travel as Bob moved swiftly northward at 35 mph with sustained winds ranging to 110 mph.
The most serious storm to hit New England since Hurricane Gloria in 1985, Bob passed near Cape Hatteras, N.C., Sunday night. It then moved north about 90 miles off the coasts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey before skirting New York and first touching land at Block Island, R.I., between Long Island, N.Y., and the Rhode Island coast this afternoon.
Throughout New England, hundreds of thousands of customers were without electricity, and telephone service was erratic.
Nuclear submarines at the naval base at Groton, Conn., were sent to sea to ride out the storm, and several nuclear-power plants were taken out of service as a precaution. Boston Mayor Ray Flynn sent state employees home at noon. At one point, the caravan of travelers attempting to cross the Sagamore Bridge from Cape Cod to the Massachusetts mainland stretched 11 miles.
"All roads on this island are impassable," said Police Chief Timothy Rich of Chilmark, a small town on the southern edge of Martha's Vineyard. "Trees are down everywhere. Power lines are lying in the road."
Makeshift shelters here and on Cape Cod were so full that people were turned away. Many were taken from boats as storm-driven seas surged nearly 12 feet above normal.
Throughout the region, few serious injuries were reported, but damage was enormous. Massive trees and utility poles were tangled in electric wires.
"This property was filled with trees," said Anne Mcghee, a landscape painter as she surveyed her property near Chilmark. "It's all gone. The beach is a parking lot, and water is everywhere." Menemsha, a small fishing village at the southern tip of the island, was nearly submerged. Police said that at least three vessels had sunk and that many more sustained serious damage.
Gusting wind and five-foot seas tossed boats and ships like toys at the Vineyard. A cabin cruiser jumped a piling and landed on two abandoned cars in a nearby parking lot.
A ship captain pleaded with Coast Guard officials to open a hurricane barrier across the mouth of the harbor at New Bedford, Mass., and allow him inside. "In danger, in danger," he cried. When appeals did not work, the captain resorted to curses.
"What would we do about the 300 other boats caught outside the barriers as well?" asked one officer as the banter between captain and Coast Guard continued for more than a half-hour.
In Edgartown on the eastern Vineyard, a large boat came to rest in the Harborside Inn's swimming pool. By 5 p.m., seas had ebbed, and people were out in rowboats in one intersection of Vineyard Haven.
By late morning, most windows on the island had been covered hastily with tape, a most valuable item. One restaurant owner in Menemsha placed a huge plywood sheet over his windows and wrote in bold red: "O.K. Bob, Make My Day."
On an island filled with rich vacationers, many historically from the Washington area, electronics stores did their best business in years. Size D batteries, which power many small radios and large flashlights, disappeared quickly. Long lines formed for gas, water, food and even fruit and vegetables that grow easily and are in great supply at this time of year.
"I've never had a day like this before," said Michael Silbey, whose mother owns Vineyard Electronics in Vineyard Haven. "Not even Christmas. They will buy anything today. Expensive television sets, rechargeable batteries, fans. If it's here, they want it."
None of it could have done much good though. By 11 a.m., power was out on the island and virtually all of Cape Cod.
In New York, a spokesman for Metro-North, a commuter rail system, said Marcia A. Campbell, 29, a conductor on a four-car train, died in Scarsdale when the train struck a tree blown onto the tracks. Three of 190 passengers were injured, the official said.
The Associated Press said that South Carolina authorities had attributed the death of a swimmer Saturday night off Myrtle Beach to heavy surf and North Carolina authorities said a man died while swimming off Holden Beach as the storm approached Sunday.
In Rhode Island, where the storm hit Block Island with winds gusting to 120 mph about 12:30 p.m., officials expressed relief that Bob appeared to have done little damage. Flooding was reported in Newport and Narragansett, but no injuries were attributed to the storm.
A Block Island resident who asked not to be identified gave a vivid description of how the eye of the storm swept past:
"We had a very hard blow, with great seas. It started building for several hours until it hit the island. Then it was crash-bang, with windows creaking and a roaring sound all around us for about an hour. At 12:30, the eye of the hurricane passed directly over us.
"Suddenly, it was sunlight and absolutely still. That lasted about two hours. Then it became dark again, and it started raining and the winds began blowing all over again."
In Providence, Gov. Bruce G. Sundlun (D) told reporters that his "quick assessment" showed "that we did not have a serious disruption in the state except for the loss of electric power. . . . But don't kid yourself. We got hit with a big storm today."
The hurricane brushed the eastern tip of Long Island, toppling trees and causing a mass exodus on flooded roads. Utility spokesmen estimated that it would take a week to restore power.
"I'm watching the water coming over the docks in seven-foot waves," said Heidi Amirata as she sat in the Montauk Lake Club on eastern Lake Montauk. "We're getting big chunks of debris washing up here -- other docks, pieces of wood. There are a couple of sunken boats. . . . Telephone poles are down and a lot of trees. They just snapped in the wind. A lot of streets are totally closed because they're under water."
The damage here caused many who are not normally philosophical to consider the ease with which they can lose everything.
"We are just trying to help people keep it in perspective," said the Rev. John Taylor, pastor at the Chilmark Community Church, as he toured an overflowing shelter. "The trees will grow back. Boats can be built, but this reminds us all how fragile we really are."
Staff writers Laurie Goodstein in New York and Haynes Johnson and Bill McAllister in Washington, and special correspondents Christopher B. Daly in Chatham, Mass.; Cristina Del Sesto in Vineyard Haven, Mass., and Kevin Sullivan in Providence contributed to this report.