In his book Great Storms of the Chesapeake, author David Healey shares that Shakespeare almost certainly drew his inspiration for The Tempest from accounts of a harrowing real-life storm and shipwreck experienced by European travelers to the New World. He adds that in the hands of the Immortal Bard, the titular storm serves as more than a mere backdrop but rather as an actual character in the play, conferring textures both romantic and magical in the process. It’s an apt analogy for Healey’s subject because most bay-area residents would certainly concur that the extreme weather that has accompanied life in this region has over the centuries not only etched itself permanently into the fabric of the landscape but also into the lives that for generations have called the bay home.
Going back to the early 17th century, Healey explains that even our run-of-the-mill summer thunderstorms would have been strange and terrifying to the European settlers of the New World. One of the first Englishmen who lived to tell the tale of such weather was none other than Captain John Smith himself, who in June of 1608 was buffeted by a roiling Chesapeake in an open boat laden with a crew of 14 hapless sailors: We discovered the winde and the waters so much increased with thunder, lightning and rain that our mast and sail blew overboard, and such mighty waves overracked in that small barge that with great labour we kept her from sinking by freeing out the water. We were forced to inhabit those uninhabitable isles which for the extremitie of gusts, thunder, raine, storms and ill weather, we called Limbo.
Healey, who has written often about the Delmarva Peninsula and her people, continues his chronological storm tracker through the centuries that followed Capt. Smith’s first experience with a Mid-Atlantic squall. He recounts, for example, “George Washington’s Storm” of 1788, so named for the founding father’s detailed description of the event, as well as the Great Gale of 1878, which sank the SS Central America along with 425 of her passengers and a fortune in Yukon gold. In more modern times, Healey reminds us about Tropical Storm Agnes, the “once in five hundred years” storm, which in 1972 wrapped the mangled remains of aluminum canoes and rowboats around the trunks of battered trees like so many twist ties, some as high as 20 feet in the air. As one might predict, the author culminates with the devastating Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933, the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which yielded the Assateague National Seashore in its wake, and of course 2011’s Hurricane Irene, which pounded peninsula coastal areas with 12 inches of rain and 70-mph winds.
Assiduously researched and crafted, Healey does a good job of telling the whole story. He includes not only the essential meteorological details of these life-changing events but also their economic, geographic or topographic consequences. There is a utilitarian index as well as copious source notes and an at-a-glance section devoted to weather records and extremes for the region. Most important, though, Healey endeavors to present alongside all the facts and figures the indelible human experience, which, at the end of the day, may be the eye of the storm that matters most.
ROCKING THE BOAT:
Great Storms of the Chesapeake
By David Healey
The History Press (2012)