When a teenage guest in our beach house decided to cozy up on a winter’s day last year, he piled wood into the living room fireplace, just as he’d seen his older cousin do the evening before. He stuffed in some newspaper, lit a match…and didn’t open the flue. He didn’t know what a flue was.
It cost us $500 to repaint the ceiling, and we decided to ignore the rest (except for the dozens of soot-filled cobwebs now clearly visible in every room). And I got to thinking about what would happen to us financially if the house burned down on, say, Memorial Day—the beginning of rental season. Sure, there’s always insurance money to rebuild, but what about the (many) thousands in rent we collect every summer, the money we use to pay the mortgage on— what we hoped would be—our retirement investment? Our dreams for a Shore Dive Kinda Life would go down (or, more precisely, up) in flames.
As I drove to the beach house in Rehoboth yesterday, with a fat nor’easter plopped down just off the mid-Atlantic coast, my anxiety wasn’t stoked by fire, but by flood. Rehoboth Beach and other towns up and down the shore had been beaten about the head and shoulders for three long days and five massive tides, with another tide rising.
On the ride in, I’d passed dozens of low-lying houses up to their ankles in water, and I worried about my own, just three blocks from a very literal “sea-level.” I headed straight to the beachfront, not knowing what to expect. I wanted to see for myself.
Forty-odd years ago, a similar monster—now called the Ash Wednesday Storm—sat on the same coast for three days and nights. The water surge, driven by near-hurricane force winds over a 600 mile span, inexorable and raging, took out the Ocean City, Maryland boardwalk, washed away burial vaults in Chincoteague, Virginia, and joined ocean to bay in Dewey Beach, Delaware—Rehoboth Beach’s next door neighbor—turning the little town into one big swim-up bar, at least until the tides receded.
Thirty years after the Ash Wednesday storm, I saw for myself what a nor’easter could do. Driving back to my rented home—an oceanfront stilt-house in Virginia Beach—after a couple of days away, I noticed a screen door askew here, an errant garbage can there. Then, turning a corner, a hundred yards of beachfront road gone, washed out to sea. I pulled onto my concrete drive – or what was left of it: half had collapsed into the surf and washed away the night before. The outside staircase leading up to the big sundeck now hung, unsupported, six feet above my head.
Inside the swaying house, I stood and looked out at the building waves, not sure what was happening. My phone rang and the rental agency told me to pack up and get out, now. The nor’easter was still out there, the tide was rising fast, and it would be dark soon.
I didn’t need to be told twice; there was so much debris in the road on my way in that I’d run over a nail and my tire was slowly leaking, so I threw ten pairs of socks and my tax return records into a plastic bag and fled. (That was also the moment I learned that I have absolute clown-like reflexes in emergency situations.)
I took a hotel room on the Virginia Beach boardwalk and listened to that storm smack the hell out of us all night long. The next day, twenty-five of my neighbors had lost their homes.
So as I pulled up to the boardwalk yesterday, Friday the 13th, I was concerned. I opened the car door and nearly sacrificed a leg as the wind whipped it back at me. I repositioned the car so the passenger side took the brunt of the gale and stepped out, staggering the few feet to the beach bent over 45 degrees like Geraldo on hurricane duty.
The waves were ferocious, bulky…and close. The dune grass was waging a mighty battle to hold its ground, but the relentless pounding had already taken a toll, carving short cliffs into what had been 100 feet of gently sloping sand. So much water. So much rain.
Nor’easters don’t care about retirement investments, or mortgage payments. And fires burn where and when they want. The moves we get to make in life are like a game of chance: we blow on the dice, toss out the best roll we can, and whoop and holler until our fate is decided. And if we’re lucky, we get to roll again.
Back on Scarborough Avenue, our house is fine. We’re still in the game. And we’re leaving our chips on the table. Rehoboth is pretty beat up, but the dune line held, and Rick and I feel a lucky streak coming on.
Dewey Beach storm photo copyright Journal News