Furious Nor'easter Punishes Lower Cape: Fells Trees, Hammers Power Grid, Reshapes Shoreline

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Storms

A motorist who tried - and failed - to drive through flooded Morris Island Road on March 2 had to be rescued by firefighters. FILE PHOTO

Packing hurricane-force winds and a massive storm surge, last weekend’s coastal storm left its mark not only on the battered shoreline, but on the the people of the Lower Cape who were left to clean up the mess. Some of those people were still without electrical service at press time Tuesday afternoon.

Redrawing Maps

Because it brought wind gusts over 90 mph, giant surf and a storm surge of around four feet over four consecutive high astronomical tides, the storm caused the kind of coastal erosion that usually takes months or years. Already scoured by a coastal storm on Jan. 4, South Beach Island was all but wiped off the map by this storm, leaving portions of the mainland exposed to the open ocean.

To the amazement of people watching from the overlook, Lighthouse Beach was heavily flooded by the storm surge, causing a large wash-over and markedly widening the April Fools inlet that leads to Outermost Harbor. North Beach Island was washed over in many locations, but the two remaining camps were left standing.

The Orleans town bandstand was in imminent danger of being undermined Monday.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

The Orleans town bandstand was in imminent danger of being undermined Monday.  ALAN POLLOCK PHOTO

Nauset Beach in Orleans felt the full fury of the storm, losing large areas of protective dunes, and putting shoreline structures like Liam’s Snack Shack in imminent danger (see related story, page 5). At the height of the storm, the waves overtopped the dunes and flooded the parking lot, Orleans Police Lt. Kevin Higgins said.

“I’ve lived in Orleans my whole life, and I’ve never seen Nauset Beach breach by the parking lot, into the lower RV lot, and into the Pochet River,” he said. Higgins posted a video clip showing the water surging through the area and rushing down the marsh into Pleasant Bay. The dunes were between 20 and 30 feet high in places, “and Mother Nature just wiped them out,” he said. At Nauset Spit, near Callanan’s Pass, the barrier beach washed over in six places, he said.

Preparations Proved Feeble

The storm came with enough warning that town officials spent much of the week reinforcing town landings against the expected erosion. Truckloads of sand were placed at various landings in Chatham, and were mostly wiped away by the second high tide Friday night. A team of nearly a dozen AmeriCorps Cape Cod workers filled sandbags in advance of the storm Thursday, but sand bags proved to be of little help against the surf and storm surge. Some of the sand bags were placed near the beach at the condominiums off Starfish Lane in the Little Beach neighborhood.

The storm surge crashes through a thin wall of sandbags near the condominiums in Little Beach.  TIM WOOD PHOTO

The storm surge crashes through a thin wall of sandbags near the condominiums in Little Beach.  TIM WOOD PHOTO

“They’re just scattered all over the place,” Chatham Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said. “They were basically useless.” Outermost Harbor Marine sent an employee to Maryland to procure a special “Aquatube” device, a large plastic tube filled with water that created a bulwark against the first high tide. But when the second high tide arrived around midnight, “it just lifted it right up and moved it away from the building,” he said. At first light, the remains of the defeated Aquatube were seen tangled in the underbrush of a neighboring property.

The flooding in the Little Beach area was even more severe than that seen in the Jan. 4 storm. Portions of Morris Island Road were undermined by the swift-moving water. On Thursday, town officials issued a warning to residents of Little Beach, Morris Island and Stage Island, warning them to evacuate or risk being stranded until the water recedes. Most did. On Friday, police received a 911 call from a motorist who had become stranded on Morris Island Road attempting to leave through the high water. Firefighters brought a high-water rescue vehicle, on loan from the Massachusetts National Guard, but ultimately chose to use an inflatable boat to reach the motorist, who was brought out without injury.

See a gallery of storm photos here.

The giant surf surged through the inlet near Minister’s Point and hammered the shoreline, which is armored with a substantial rock revetment. The rock wall there “has a substantial hole in it,” Duncanson reported. The ocean plucked away the four- to six-ton stones, leaving a gap of between 25 to 30 feet in the revetment protecting the Milden property at 2 Salt Pond Rd. “They’ve probably lost 20 to 25 feet back of the lawn in an circular area around where that hole is,” Duncanson said, and the hole was expected to widen considerably in the days ahead.

Trees And Power Lines Downed

The strong winds, which persisted through Monday and were punctuated by hurricane-force gusts earlier in the storm, caused countless trees to come down. Some were uprooted or were snapped at their base, and others broke halfway up the trunk or shed large branches. A man driving on West Road in Orleans Friday had a substantial limb crash through his windshield, landing in the empty passenger’s seat.

A driver was shaken, but unhurt, after a large limb went through his windshield on West Road in Orleans Friday.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

A driver was shaken, but unhurt, after a large limb went through his windshield on West Road in Orleans Friday.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

“He was just driving along and, all of a sudden, crash,” Higgins said.

Tens of thousands of Cape Codders were left without electrical service, among 400,000 outages in Eversource’s Massachusetts coverage area. Utility workers from around the Northeast were in place before the storm and began restoring power as soon as the winds subsided sufficiently. As of The Chronicle’s press time Tuesday, just under 300 people in Chatham, Harwich and Orleans remained without service.

“In a way, this was kind of similar to Hurricane Bob,” which also caused extensive tree damage, Higgins said.

The Barnstable County Regional Emergency Planning Committee and its partner agencies opened a shelter at the Cape Tech school in Harwich, which closed Monday at noon. At its peak occupancy, the shelter housed 38 people, Cape Tech Superintendent Bob Sanborn said. Power outages canceled many events and shut down businesses throughout the region; Monomoy schools called off classes Monday because the middle school was without electricity.

Heroic Response

Town officials had strong praise for their police, fire and highway departments, some members of which worked literally around the clock during the storm. Crews handled a staggering number of road closures Friday and Saturday, blocking off streets made impassible both by downed trees and live power lines and by coastal flooding. Many of those crews had worked extended hours earlier in the week, pre-staging road barricades and other equipment in advance of the storm.

Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith had particular praise for Mandi Speakman and staff of the senior center, which operated a warming center for people without power Saturday. Twenty-five people made use of the center, with six who needed active care. Another warming center was established at the Harwich Community Center after the closure of the Cape Tech shelter.

Though it took until Tuesday morning for his own home to have power restored, Higgins said the power outages were comparatively short-lived for many people. He praised Eversource and Verizon for their “phenomenal” work during the storm.

Harwich Fire Chief Norman Clarke, Jr., said his department handled an incredible volume of calls during the storm. On Friday night, firefighters responded to 90 emergency calls, with 59 calls on Saturday. By comparison, a typical busy day in the summertime sees between 20 and 30 calls, he said. The department fielded three simultaneous calls some 23 times during and after the storm, and at one point had eight runs happening at the same time. Crews also responded to a serious one-car crash on Route 39 during the storm, he said. Chatham firefighters handled some 80 calls between Friday and Saturday.

As of press time Tuesday, the National Weather Service had hoisted a high wind warning and a coastal flood advisory for the next coastal storm, which was expected to arrive Wednesday. That storm was expected to bring winds gusting to 60 mph and a storm surge of up to two-and-a-half feet. Because tides are not astronomically high, coastal flooding was expected to be less severe.

William F. Galvin, Kat Szmit, Ed Maroney and Tim Wood contributed to this report.