Storm Surge Sweeps Little Beach

By: Alan Pollock

Chatham Fish Pier sough jog was awash during last Thursday's winter storm. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM When Penny Haughwout sat down at her computer table to do some work Thursday morning, she noticed nothing out of the ordinary outside her condo on Starfish Lane. Her low-lying neighborhood, Little Beach, routinely gets puddles during heavy rains, and the field opposite her window becomes an impromptu duck pond. When she happened to glance up at around 11:30 a.m., she saw trouble.

“When I looked up, the water on the road was already about three feet, and the field was completely gone,” she said. Her driveway was covered, and her car – usually parked perpendicular to the fence – was now sideways, with a boat nestled next to it. “It had moved my car. I realized it was already too late for me to jump in my car and try to get away,” she said. “It just came in so fast.”

With two hours to go before high tide, Haughwout knew she had to get out. When she called 911, the fear in her voice was evident.

Deputy Police Chief John Cauble said the region was expecting coastal flooding from the rapidly intensifying storm, but emergency managers expected the worst flooding to take place on the Cape Cod Bay side between Sandwich and Dennis. Had they known what would happen in Little Beach, the town would have issued a voluntary evacuation order for the neighborhood. As it was, there wasn’t even time to put out a reverse-911 call to area residents.

“It was in progress,” Cauble said.

In about five minutes, Haughwout saw some flashing red lights through the trees and knew a tire truck was on its way. She rushed around the house to gather some necessities like clothing and medications, collected her dog and waited for the fire truck.

“And then nothing. And nothing, and nothing.”

What Haughwout didn’t know was that the firefighters just down the road had encountered deep water that was rapidly rising and rushing north up Seagull Road and Starfish Lane. As they are trained to do, firefighters retreated from the high water before their fire engine was overcome. Deputy Fire Chief David DePasquale summoned the department’s Swift Water Rescue Team and its inflatable rescue boat. They summoned the new high water rescue vehicle from Harwich, but it was unable to get down the road.

“The water was too high for it,” Fire Chief Peter Connick said. “It was over the top of the hydrants.”

While locals say the water levels in Little Beach were ultimately not quite as high as they were during the No-name Storm of 1991 – also known as the Perfect Storm or the Halloween Storm – they rose much more quickly.

“In this case it was due to the fact that the coastal storm strengthened so quickly,” National Weather Service Meteorologist Joe Dellacarpini said. The focus had been on the Cape Cod Bay shore, where severe coastal flooding was forecast. Minor to moderate coastal flooding was expected on east-facing shores. “But it was just so strong,” Dellacarpini said of the storm system. With a central pressure around 952 millibars, the massive coastal storm was similar in intensity to a minimal hurricane, and hurricane-force gusts were registered in East Falmouth, Wellfleet and Nantucket.

While data was not available from the tide gauge at Chatham Harbor, it appears the storm surge was between three and four feet, owing to the high astronomical tide and the timing of the highest winds.

“It was almost a worst-case scenario” for coastal flooding, Dellacarpini said.

The speed with which the water rose in Little Beach had to do with high waves overtopping South Beach, Harbormaster Stuart Smith said. The barrier beach, depleted by erosion and pocked with inlets, was almost entirely washed over.

“A wall of water came over the beach,” he said.

Haughwout got a telephone call from a friend who had learned that firefighters were coming to her aid by rescue boat. “It ended up being over two hours before they could come in,” she said. “I’m sure they were very busy, but it ends up being a long time looking out the window – and meanwhile the water’s rising.”

Firefighters first rescued another resident from the condominium complex and then went to Haughwout’s unit. Knowing water would come in to the house if she opened the door, she shimmied out through a back window and made her way to the rescue boat. “The firemen were all great,” she said. They motored up the roadway in the inflatable boat – a strange sensation – and finally reached higher ground just south of the tennis courts on Morris Island Road. She told one of the firefighters, Nelson Wirtz, that she didn’t want to get her feet wet.

“He slung me right over his shoulder and just carried me right to the fire engine,” she said. “They were young, handsome men,” she said with a chuckle.

Fortunately, most of the homes in the neighborhood are summer residences and were unoccupied during the storm. But a few of the year-round residents declined to be evacuated. The following day, one resident of Lobster Lane called firefighters to report that, once the storm had stopped, she tried to drive her vehicle out of the neighborhood and it fell through the ice. The problem was that the storm water would not recede.

“It’s like a bowl in there,” Cauble said. “Even when the tide goes out, it’s not a matter of draining it out, because now it’s in the bowl.”

The water had reached electrical junction boxes in the neighborhood and was starting to short out underground electrical services to homes. To keep people from being electrocuted, and to reduce the risk of fire, officials cut the power to the area. Doing so darkened not only Little Beach, but also all of Morris Island and Stage Island. Temperatures were dropping to the single digits.

While ordinary cars could not navigate the deep puddles on Morris Island Road, large town trucks could do so. The town’s new building commissioner, Jay Briggs, joined firefighters and harbormaster staff and visited every home on both islands to see if any residents needed to be evacuated. Most opted to remain in place, and several homes had functioning generators. The islands themselves, and the Morris Island causeway, remained dry during the storm.

Traveling back from that mission, Harbormaster Stuart Smith came upon a vehicle stuck in deep water at the intersection of Morris Island Road and Starfish Lane. He helped the driver, a pregnant woman, into his truck and ferried her to dry land; she was not hurt. Her vehicle became stuck in the ice and became particularly challenging for officials to remove later.

A number of vehicles and homes were inundated in Little Beach, which is still marked with debris piles and wrecked landscaping. A round-the clock effort finally rid the neighborhood of water (see related story), and contractors have been busy starting repairs and cleaning up the mess.

For her part, Haughwout said she’s very lucky. The sliding glass doors kept the flood waters out of her unit, and the property managers were able to drain the pipes before they could freeze. She expects to be allowed to move back in late this week or early next week, though she knows she’ll have lots of cleaning up to do.

“The grounds are devastated and the beach has eroded greatly,” she said. “And I have a boat on my front stoop.”