Henri, Meet Uncle Bob

As I write, we’re on the fringes of Tropical Storm Henri. The wind is blowing, there’s been some rain, but so far, so good. The electricity flickered a couple of times before 7 but I went ahead and made the quiche I’d been hankering for. It came out of the oven 15 minutes ago. I’m calling it quiche Henri.

Despite its advance billing, Henri has turned out to be less than a big deal for Martha’s Vineyard and environs, though of course the boats aren’t running and the last day of the Ag Fair was cancelled. It’s a bigger deal further west, like in Connecticut and New York.

Locally the advance billing has included frequent reminders of Hurricane Bob, which landed on these shores exactly 30 years ago, on August 19, 1991. I didn’t need the reminders. I, like just about everyone else who was here at the time, have plenty of stories to tell about Bob. My memories are so vivid I’m having a harder time reminding myself that three decades have passed since then.

Bob made a big impression.

I was Calendar & Community (i.e., features) editor at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, which was then still located in the old Spaghetti Pot building behind Woodland Market. (That building is no more. Gone forever is the orange carpeting that I’d swear was dyed with spaghetti sauce.) One of the many things Bob taught me was how the island’s electrical grid worked. The Times was on the same trunk line as the hospital, which is why our electricity was restored so fast.

Actually, it was jack-of-all-trades Times reporter Gerry Kelly who taught me that. He did the research and published it in the paper.

The Vineyard Gazette (which we habitually referred to as “an Edgartown weekly,” while they called us “the other paper”) was not so lucky. August 19, 1991, was a Monday. In those days the Gazette published on Tuesday as well as Friday — and the Gazette, unlike the Times, was printed in-house, on its own presses. Which required electricity. Google (which definitely wasn’t around at the time) just jogged my memory: that week the Gazette came out on Wednesday. The lead paragraph of the lead story is worth quoting:

The earliest hurricane in New England history roared up the East Coast Mon­day, plowing across Martha’s Vineyard with harbors full and seasonal popula­tion at its peak. Hurricane Bob lashed the Island with winds officially clocked at 98 miles per hour and reported in places as high as 110.

The story was accompanied by grim photos of smashed boats in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven harbors.

At the time I was living up-island on State Road, where it’s West Tisbury on one side and Chilmark on the other. We didn’t get power back for almost 10 days, so having access to running water and refrigeration at the Times office was a blessing. I washed my hair in the office sink at least once. Staffers brought the spoilables from our inoperative refrigerators in to share, and we feasted for a couple of days. Then as now the Times came out on Thursday, so Monday was our “on your mark,” Tuesday was “get set,” and Wednesday was “GO!” So feasting on Tuesday and Wednesday was a big plus.

We had electricity at the newspaper, but most of the island didn’t. Since most people’s answering machines weren’t working, it finally dawned on me just how indispensable they were. The 1991 Ag Fair had just ended: it was only three days at that point, and since the “new” Ag Hall hadn’t been built, it was still at the Grange. Several of us were on what was usually a routine assignment: rounding up results and collecting anecdotes about the fair. Being unable to leave a message when someone wasn’t home was a time-consuming PITA. Anecdotes don’t vary all that much from one year to the next, but we couldn’t exactly recycle the previous year’s without getting caught out by half the island.

I have this vague recollection of trying to verify a report that some couple had gotten married on the Ferris wheel. Whether it turned out to be true or not I don’t remember — and if it was, it might have been at some other fair.

Bob transformed the landscape as well as doing serious damage in the harbors. Brandy Brow is a hillock where State Road in West Tisbury intersects the Edgartown Road. If West Tisbury center had a gateway, Brandy Brow was it. I passed it on my way home almost every day: it was so densely wooded that you barely saw the land itself. After Bob passed through, that was almost all you saw. At least three-quarters of the trees were gone.

After Bob, walking the King’s Highway, an ancient way in Chilmark, required plenty of scrambling over fallen trees. For horses or mountain bikes — forget it. The state forest was decimated, or so it seemed. (Keep in mind that “decimated” doesn’t mean “leveled”; as the word itself suggests, it means to take one-tenth of the whole. It wasn’t literally that bad, but the damage was major, and it was many years before it was cleaned up.)

Several big trees blocked the dirt road I was living on, but here I lucked out: a nurse at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital lived on this little network of roads, so volunteer EMTs, firefighters, et al. showed up with chainsaws to clear the way so she could get to work. Everyone in the neighborhood benefited.

Tesah Toyota, 1988–2003

The West Tisbury fire station on the Edgartown Road left its outside hose open so those of us without running water could refill our buckets. I did this quite a few times. It helped that at the time I was driving a pickup, the late Tesah Toyota, so I didn’t have to worry about water sloshing in the cargo bay.

Bob was a windy storm (understatement of the century), but it wasn’t a wet one. As a result the summer and fall of 1991 were very strange. November arrived almost overnight, turning the salt-scorched oak and maple leaves prematurely brown. But lilacs and other spring blossoms arrived in September — it became clear to those who hadn’t already figured it out that nature doesn’t pay all that much attention to the calendar.

And then there were the bees. Bees were everywhere, taking advantage of fallen trees and spring-in-fall blooming. One morning, at the outdoor patio at the Patisserie on Main Street, Vineyard Haven (long gone, fondly remembered), I admired the homemade bee-catchers (one-liter soda bottles cut in two, baited with something sweet, and hung from the ceiling) designed to distract the bees from my breakfast.

Also omnipresent was the sound of chainsaws. They could be hard to tell from mopeds. Was that a moped coming up Main Street, or was it a chainsaw?

Hurricane Bob also prompted me to look for a year-round rental. For several years I’d had a place to go in the summer while I had winter rentals the rest of the year. My summer housemate, whom I’d known for years, was a kitchen slob. I’m not exactly a fastidious housekeeper, but if I slice a tomato and use half of it in a salad, I don’t leave the other half on the counter. Imagine, if you will, 9 or 10 days of this in August heat without running water or refrigeration.

Fortunately reasonably affordable year-round rentals weren’t all that hard to find in the early 1990s, and I found a good one: I actually lived year-round in the same place for almost 10 years. And that alone should remind me how long ago this was, in case I forget.

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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5 Responses to Henri, Meet Uncle Bob

  1. Dan waters says:

    Love every detail in this column, which captures not only what happened during Hurricane Bob, but how we lived back then! It’s so easy to forget that there was no Internet in 1991, and that even urgent news traveled slowly. In August of that year I was attending Bread Loaf Writers Conference in deeply rural Vermont. At this retreat we were discouraged from keeping up with the news, but one night at the communal dinner there was a brief announcement that “For those of you following the hurricane, it seems to have made landfall in southeastern Massachusetts.” It was the first I’d heard that there even WAS a hurricane.

    We had rudimentary Nokia cellphones in those days and I immediately called Hal, who was home in West Tisbury and horrified that I had no idea what he was experiencing. He held his phone out the kitchen door so I could hear the roar of the wind through the Christiantown trees. He said we’d lost a few huge oaks already — and indeed we lost dozens before the ordeal was over. Days later, sailing over on the ferry, I could already tell that the normally lush green north shore of the Island was turning Cronig’s-bag-brown because of all the salt the trees had been sprayed with.

    Lilacs in September! Yes, it was a surreal year — yet magical in a way that the even more surreal years of 2020 and 2021 will never rise to…

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is so true, which is why I remember so much of it so clearly. I’m not sure I’ve ever been that far from the news for an extended period — wow. Makes me think of Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the Revolution or Thomas the Rhymer returning from Elfland.


  2. Helen Green says:

    Wow! Good description of Hurricane Bob. I was here for Bob too, and working at the hospital. I lived in Edgartown at the time and seemed to be on the Hospital grid. Never quite understood how it could reach so far but anyway I was happy about it. When you talked about all the old places like the Spaghetti Pot and the Patisserie etc I realized how long 30 years really is.
    Funny (I guess) story. Kate and I had friends over right after the hurricane. And someone there was saying how she had gone over to Woods Hole before the hurricane to move her car. Kate and I locked eyes and said oh my God! At that point Kate had been going to Boston every week to see clients. And she had a parking permit for Woods Hole. (You can’t get one these days.) Anyway … the next day we go over to WH and walk towards her car and there was seaweed hanging off the bottom of it. We get in it and the gas pedal was stuck to the floor. There was a penny on the floor completely corroded. Needless to say her car was totaled.
    Glad this one was nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh jeez — that moment when you realize you’ve forgotten something big . . . That corroded penny shows just how powerful the sea is. Someday we really ought to have a Bob party. 🙂


      • Helen says:

        That would be interesting because everyone has a story. It’s like the Blizzard of ’78, I was in Cambridge and I have lot of stories about that as well.
        I meant to mention that a few weeks or months maybe after Bob I flew out of the Vineyard Airport and I looked down and saw the State Forest decimated as you said and I said to someone” what happened there? ” ” and they said oh thats from Hurricane Bob.” I was stunned!


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