For many people, the “Perfect Storm” of 1991 was something experienced through the pages of a book or on the silver screen.
But here on Cape Cod, it was a weather event for the record books.
“Meteorologist John LaCorte said his colleagues at the (National Weather Service) station on Morris Island in Chatham called the storm ‘the worst they’ve ever seen,’” according to the Friday, Nov. 1, 1991 edition of the Cape Codder. “The opinion was seconded by many people out and about on Wednesday, surveying damage.”
The storm, also known as the ‘No Name Storm” or ‘Halloween Gale,’ was a combination of several weather factors. When the fading Hurricane Grace collided with a cold front barreling off the coast, a meteorological marvel was the result.
The system lashed most of eastern New England, claiming 13 lives, and was front and center in Sebastian Junger’s book, “The Perfect Storm,” a title that was coined from a conversation between Junger, who summers in Truro, and Boston National Weather Service forecaster Robert Case.
Here on Cape Cod, wind gusts of 78 miles per hour on Morris Island and 79 mph at MacMillan Pier in Provincetown were reported. A weather buoy off Nova Scotia recorded a wave exceeding 100 feet, while, east of the Cape, buoys measured wave heights at 39 feet.
The high tides even surpassed those of the legendary “Blizzard of ’78.
Ken Collins, a longtime Eastham resident who died in 2008, encountered the worst flooding he’d ever seen at his home along Town Cove.
“He marks the level storms have reached in his garage the way some measure the growth of children,” the Codder reported. “The ’78 storm is marked about shin high. The big storm of ’87 is waist high. The marks of ’91 need no ink; they cover the garage.”
Over at Coast Guard Beach in Eastham, high dunes were reduced to flat ground. Water flooded the dunes east of the bridge just north of the Coast Guard station, depositing debris into the marsh, and closing the bridge. An 11,000-year-old archaeological site, uncovered the year before, was damaged.
Nauset Light Beach lost 10 feet of cliff, the stairs were washed away, and part of the fence on a 40-foot overlook was claimed by waves. Three structures, including Henry McCusker’s boat house, were In Truro, the Pamet River at Ballston Beach saw a 100-foot cut created by high surf. “I never thought I’d see it in my life,” Provincetown native Edward Roza told the Codder.
In Chatham, high surf destroyed the 40-foot bank supporting the scenic overlook at Lighthouse Beach, while Bruce and Donna Edson had to be rescued from their beach camp on North Beach by friends in ORVs. The Edsons had to wade through waist high water to get to the ORV. Their camp survived, but several others weren’t so lucky. “Over a dozen beach camps were totally splintered and blown into Pleasant Bay,” the Codder reported.
Route 28 in Harwich, near Pleasant Bay, was underwater. In the middle of the flooded area, reported the Codder, “was a man perched atop his car, which was sitting like a tin island in the middle of Route 28.” Two feet of water made its way into the Orleans Yacht Club. “The doors were blown off the building, and the water rushed in, and the leather chairs were put on top of tables,” the Codder reported. “Sand, mud, and seagrass … was just throughout the place.”
The landscape of the peninsula changed forever. “Cape Cod is smaller today than it was just a few days ago,” John LoDico wrote in the page 1 story for the Nov. 1 Codder.
“For some people there would be no bouncing back from this historic weather event,” LoDico wrote. “But for most, the Northeaster of 1991 was just another unpredictable occurrence, something to be reckoned with immediately with sandbags and hurricane lamps, then remembered, through photographs and old newspaper clippings and through stories that inevitably, and fortunately, will be handed down for years to come.”
Originally published in the Cape Codder, Oct. 30, 2016.
Don Wilding is a lecturer, tour guide, and author of two books: "Henry Beston's Cape Cod: How 'The Outermost House' Inspired a National Seashore," and "A Brief History of Eastham: On the Outer Beach of Cape Cod." His "Shore Lore" column appears weekly in the Cape Codder.