How does one prepare for a storm? Besides hunkering down with groceries, flashlights, and plenty of water, we are advised to stay inside, listen to weather advisories, and not drive.
I planned to do the opposite on Monday morning. I would spend the day outside, seeking meaning from those who enjoy standing at the edge of seawalls during major storms, deep in thought. Perhaps they could explain what draws them to the edge of catastrophe. I also planned to speak with those whose lives would change during the day. Some who had power in the morning and would later be sitting in darkness. Or replaying the moment a tree crashed into their house.
There was nothing unusual about Monday’s gray, dour sky. We live with it from late fall through the winter and into the spring. There were no torrential rains on the North Shore as Hurricane Sandy barreled toward the coast. But the sky sounded like a giant fan that suggested something bad was on its way.
The noise followed me to Nahant Beach just before high tide, around 11:30 a.m. There, Laura Taurasi and Herbie Robbins were standing at the edge of the Nahant Causeway, leaning into the wind and watching the waves pummel the shoreline.
The Saugus couple had just come from Revere, where a wind storm had turned America’s oldest public beach into an aquatic miasma. The two planned to head to Lynn Beach after getting a good soaking from the curtain of waves in Nahant. When I asked them why they weren’t inside, they said they were drawn to the waves.
“I live dangerously. I’m curious,” said Taurasi.
Just north in Lynn, about 100 people had congregated at the seawall next to Red Rock at King’s Beach. Most stood alone, staring at the whitecaps as they swirled from a distance before gathering steam and finally crashing against the seawall. Some waves looked harmless; others were ominous, rising like a chariot going full force into battle.
The wall seemed like an afterthought. We mostly took for granted that it would stay intact. I snapped hundreds of photos while dodging vertical sheets of salt water, and then focused on the wall again. Wasn’t it built to hold back ferocious storms like this? But walls have collapsed before, and my mind shifted to Katrina before I started taking photos again. The 10-foot waves rose from the Atlantic and curled liked seahorses seeking to conquer land. The wall stood proudly and held firm; its culverts shot out streams of salt water after taking a hit.
Dozens of people lined the pavilion that sticks out over the beach. They gripped cellphone and pocket cameras, looking to interpret the surges, and did their best to get out of the way when the mist from the giant surf crashed as high as 20 feet above their heads.
Karen Cahill usually cooks on weekdays at Lynn Tech, but the school was closed and her apartment building across from King’s Beach was shaking. She had a perfect view of the ocean from her eighth-floor unit, but she wanted more. She needed to be in the middle of the storm.
“I could sell tickets to this,” she said, as she snapped photos of the waves and mist. “A lot of my friends wanted to come over, but they can’t get here.”
Around 2 p.m., I learned that around one-third of Swampscott had lost its electricity. The areas without power stretched from King’s Beach all the way to Vinnin Square, the town’s main shopping center.
Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, the leader of Chabad Lubavitch of the North Shore, spent most of the day at his synagogue, just a block from the beach. There, the power flickered on and off. He said he often goes to the beach during storms and could relate to those who were standing before the surf.
“When you see something that you don’t normally see, oftentimes it allows you to feel something spiritually that you don’t normally feel,” he said.
In Marblehead, I stood on a cliff overlooking Preston Beach. Its pristine seawall seemed no match for the colossal waves. Meanwhile, people sauntered past me and squeezed along the narrow path on top of the seawall to get a better view. People behind me yelled out warnings to the storm watchers, but they kept on walking.
I wondered about their safety and then noticed Rich Messinger, a Marblehead photographer, who also had been driving from one beach to another all day.
“I’m looking for the perfect wave,” he said, snapping one of the hundreds of photos he took that day. The wave, he explained, would be a combination of two waves. When they smash together it’s like a sandwich, he said. “I like the unpredictability of storms — you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “The ocean fascinates me, and it fascinates everybody.”
Back on dry land, I came upon a house where a large tree crashed onto a roof. “The wind was blowing heavy and all of sudden I heard a crashing sound,” Glover Preble explained, looking up at his roof. Preble is named after two famous relatives: Revolutionary War General John Glover was his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and Edward Preble was once the commodore of the USS Constitution.
“We just count our blessings that we didn’t get hit any harder,” said the retired Marblehead police sergeant.
Back in Swampscott, Vinnin Square was dark even before sundown. Parts of the shopping center were under water last October, when a storm dumped 6 inches of rain on the town during high tide. During Sandy, it was mostly dry but silent.
On a nearby street, Gregg Hamel, a Swampscott native who still lives in town, was wondering when his power would come back on. He had gone to the beaches and seen the waves, played guitar at a friend’s house, and was ready to eat dinner. “When you lose all your electrical power and Internet connectivity to the world, you feel isolated,” he told me.
I headed home, turned on the computer, and looked for lost clues of the day in my photos. I have lived next to the ocean nearly all of my life, and on different days the waves have seemed mostly green, blue, aqua, and white. On this day the waves just seemed to be gasping for something we could never understand. They appeared to be drowning in their own fury, while begging to be released from an ocean that edged closer and closer to us.