'Urricanes 'Ardly Hever 'Appen...
Oho, an "extratropical" hurricane, was originally a hurricane centered 995 miles northeast of Hawaii and hit British Columbia, Canada, on Thursday (October 8, 2015). As it moved into above-normal waters off the central B.C. coast it re-strengthened. The combination of an El Nino year and the "blob" of warm water off B.C.'s coast helped to make the storm stronger as it moved north into SE Alaska on Friday.
Maximum sustained winds were 85 mph with higher gusts, increasing on Friday as the storm made landfall on coastal SE Alaska.
My dad called to tell me we were forecasted to be hit by a hurricane, so that meant checking our mooring lines and surge anchors to make sure everything was secure. Plus tying down anything that might blow away. The good news was it would hit in the daytime. What a relief! So many of our powerful windstorms seem to clobber us at night. A howling wind pummeling and tearing at your house is so much more stressful when you're lying wide awake in bed waiting for the roof to be torn off into the roaring darkness. I can't begin to count how often I've lived through that experience.
We did what we could to be prepared and waited for Oho to hit.
Our first indication of the storm was the way the tide raced in, driven by the increasing wind. The gusts began to slam us, the wind shrieking around the eaves and the rain thundering on the roof, as the tide rose. A terrific storm surge accompanied the wind. My house sailed several feet, the wind-tossed trees skidding by outside my windows, and was pulled up short by my mooring lines. The house jerked, then swung heavily in the opposite direction. But this time my house shuddered all through its frame, from the float logs to the roof. Something was ramming me.
I had to push hard against the wind pressure to open my front door, then hang onto it so it wouldn't slam open. From my front deck, buffeted by the wind, deafened by the jet scream of it through the wild trees, I saw what the problem was.
The log that we'd just pulled alongside my dad's workshop to add to its flotation was loose on one end and pile-driving into my float with every five to six foot storm surge.
The problem was figuring out what to do about it.
The plan was for my dad to put an anchor on a rope while I pushed the log over to the shop. He'd go out on the end of the shop's brow log and toss the anchor over the rogue log, holding the other end of the line. The weight of the anchor would keep the log pulled tight to the shop and neatly corraled.
I got the pike pole and pushed the heavy log against the storm surges. The water was almost black with stirred up mud and littered with a blanket of autumnal orange needles blown off the trees. Driftwood swirled everywhere. It wasn't raining as hard as it had been, thankfully, but we were still getting wet.
Once we had the log in position with the houses and floats surging all around us and gusts hammering us, my dad dropped the anchor with a splash. I dropped the pike pole and ran around the shifting walkways and splashed through the water that had surged in over my parents' decks. When I reached him he handed me the end of the line and while he continued to hold the anchor, I tied off the rope.
That took care of that problem.
A few hours later as the tide ran out, we found that the generator shed's float had worked itself loose of one if its tie-up lines. The walkway to it was badly wedged and out of position. My dad managed to free that and put it back in place. I tied a new line to the shed's float, watching my fingers so they wouldn't get pinched as I snugged the line down between surges.
Now we just had to wait for the tide to go out to take care of all the other problems the storm surge had caused as the wind continued to scream.
It was nice to feel the stability of dry land under my house. Although, as gusts in excess of 100 mph tore at my roof, causing it to give a rattling, metal vibration, I wondered if the "give" of water wasn't preferrable.
When the tide had gone out far enough my dad and I walked the beaches, tying up loose logs, freeing lines from entanglements, and noting where various items had gotten blow to, like fuel jugs, a tarp, blocks of foam, etc.
I could hear the strait roaring by more clearly outside and I hiked over the rocks to look at it. I took pictures, the wind trying to buffet the tablet out of my hand, but even as I did I knew they wouldn't capture the sheer, elemental power, fury and desolation of the scene. I had to turn away when the gusts increased, almost knocking me off the rocks.
At least there was still daylight, however grey and angry. Unlike when we'd first moved our floathouse to the cannery when I was nine and we got hit by a monster tide/storm combo that broke the floathouse's shorlines.
In the middle of the roaring night my dad tried to drive the house back into place with the skiff while my mom and the five of us kids held onto the shoreline. The youngest was four years old. If we didn't hang on, our home would be blown out onto the raging sea.
I don't know how long we had to hold on, our muscles, burning, soaked to the skin by rain and blowing spray, but it felt like hours. For a while it looked like the combined power of the skiff and our puny human power wouldn't hold it, but I think we managed to last just long enough for the tide to swing in our favor. Once the logs grounded, we could let go in exhaustion and feel slightly more safe.
We have terrific windstorms every winter. Among other damage, trees come down all the time. My nephew Sterling dodged one in the woods only a couple years ago. The branches from one that fell near my house hit my roof and I thought the whole tree was going to follow. I was fairly relieved when it didn't. Once a tree fell on the corner of the school in the nearby village, but unfortunately--us kids thought--it didn't do enough damage to keep us from doing our schoolwork. Roofing has been known to come off, among other wind damage to structures.
For instance, one night, when it was just my parents and me out here, a section of their metal roofing tore off in the wind. In the pitch black, pouring rain, with flashlights clenched in our teeth, we set up the ladder and fought the wind to screw the sheet of roofing--that was very determined to act like a sail--back down. Don't ask me how we eventually managed it.
During another memorable storm, my sister and I went down with my Uncle Rory to check on his fishing boat at the dock in Knudson Cove. It was another howling black night, the wind and rain clawing at our faces. We found the boat was fine, but one of the stabilizers had been blown around a nearby piling. Imagine an eight-pound weight on the end of a line wrapped several times around a telephone pole and imagine what kind of a wind would be able to do that.
The worst storms have always been, ironically, around Thanksgiving. We would usually go to my grandparents' house in the village for a turkey dinner, with aunts and uncles and cousins all cramming into the one-bedroom, one and half story cabin. Without fail we'd get stuck there for a week as the winds raged and the seas made it impossible for us to get back home.
Once, while we were stuck at my grandparents' house, unknown hunters from town had to shelter at our house. (Everyone in the bush left their homes unlocked for that very purpose.)
Another time, when we finally got home, there'd been a freeze and the pipes had burst in the kitchen. Us kids were thrilled to have our own indoor skating rink. We all have memories of the really big storms, the ones that branded themselves into our psyches....
One of our favorite movies growing up was My Fair Lady. We never failed to laugh when Audrey Hepburn, as Cockney Eliza Doolittle, recited: "In 'Artford, 'Ereford and 'Ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly hever 'appen."
She might have included "Halaska" in that line-up because officially we never had hurricanes, even when we had sustained winds over 100 miles per hour. All we had were "gales," "severe windstorms" or "high windstorms."
But they screamed like hurricanes.
And they killed like hurricanes.
It was during one of those non-hurricanes when I was ten that my Uncle Rand left our house to move his fishing boat to another anchorage. We kept in constant contact with him on the CB radio as the storm increased and his boat, thrashed by enormous seas and violent winds, began taking on more water than it could handle. My uncle Rory and another fisherman from the village tried to go to his aid. Rory had to turn back when the giant seas began to overwhelm his boat. The neighbor's boat faired better, but in all that chaos he couldn't find Rand. The Coast Guard didn't fly that night, it was storming too hard for them. My parents went out in our tiny 13 foot skiff with nothing more than flaslights in a desperate attempt to find Rand, leaving us kids alone listening to the wind scream.
Years later I met a woman who said she was listening to the radio that night in a far off village, drinking cocoa before bed. It had made her feel completely helpless as she sat there in the safe comfort of her home while my uncle, and everyone trying to rescue him, battled for their lives.
Rand's last words to us on the radio were, "I'm going down."
His swamped boat was found after the storm, but we never saw him again.
It was an early introduction to the deadly power of an Alaskan storm, one I've never forgotten.
10/13/2015 10:56:58 am
just wanted to let you know how much i enjoy your writing. i am facinated by se alaska and your stories are both informative and haunting. looking forward to your next post
10/13/2015 11:09:13 am
Thank you so much, Theresa. Have you had the chance to visit SE Alaska? We love appreciative people like you. I'm doing a post on my mom next. She dreamed about coming to Alaska for years and never thought it would happen. And yet....
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Tara Neilson (ADOW)