Stormy Weather

Chapter 18 -- Part 6

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As a coastal community, Hampton has suffered through more than its share of blizzards, hurricanes, and tornadoes. The Beach in particular has received damage, although property destruction there was slight in the early years because few people lived at the shore. One noteworthy storm in 1851 ripped off a large piece of Boar's Head and carried away much sand from the beachfront. Oliver Nudd so feared for his life that he boarded up his house and fled to the upland section of town.

The 24-hour blizzard of March 1888 left some 15 to 17 inches of snow on the flat and drifts several feet high. Roads were impassable, so town meeting had to be postponed. In general, however, residents could adapt to the disruptions caused by major snowstorms because they were less reliant on outside services for their needs. Home-grown food was available in the pantry, and the family milk cow was in the barn, probably stabled next to a large supply of cordwood, which was burned in the kitchen stove or the parlor furnace. Men with outside jobs could walk to work, although many first would help to make snow paths to be used by sleighs, the prime method of winter transportation. On March 24, 1904, for example, the Exeter News-Letter reported that sleighing in the Village had ended after 89 consecutive days, "an almost unparalleled event." There were 47 snowstorms, nearly three times the average number.

Before the days of plows, teams of horses pulled huge rollers that compressed the snow. Men with shovels cut through drifts, the workers usually receiving credit for their labor against their property taxes. In 1888, eight men were paid a total of $97.98 for making snow paths. Ten years later, the snow-path account of $154.11 was paid to 66 men, 19 of the shovelers being Blakes, seven Godfreys, and six Lampreys. This system apparently worked satisfactorily until the days of automobiles, although for some years owners of motor vehicles put their cars up on blocks during the winter months because the roads were often passable only with horse-drawn vehicles. As late as 1923, when four storms within a week left 30 inches of snow, some delivery men switched to horses, since trucks could not run on the heavily drifted highways.

The January 1923 storm provides an example of the dedication of Hampton's store employees. The heavy snows prevented the grocery stores from making deliveries to Beach residents, who were running low on food. After the storms ended, clerks from the stores headed to the Beach with orders, but the road was not open, so at one point, they unloaded 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of supplies onto a bobsled, which they hauled across the marsh. Cold and wet from falling on the snow and into creeks, the delivery men finally got to a house with a phone, and they called Beach men for help in delivering the goods. They were rewarded with doughnuts, chowder, and cheese. With no other form of transportation available, the clerks walked back to the Village, taking over 2 hours. Not until 1925 did Hampton finally buy a snowplow.

Today, when many people could not get by for a day without a trip to a store, snowplowing is a vital community service that costs taxpayers many thousands of dollars each year. In 1977, for example, storms on January 7 and 10 cost $12,000 for plowing and sanding. During that year, 53 inches of snow fell in nine storms costing a total of $22,644, or $427 per inch of snow The worst snowstorm within recent memory was the blizzard of February 6-8, 1978. Even weather broadcasters were caught off guard by the storm, which began late on a Monday and continued through Wednesday. Most people were isolated in their homes, but some 200 Beach residents, together with 14 dogs and eight cats, had to seek refuge in the junior high school cafetorium. There was some $6 million in residential and commercial property damage along the coast as waves battered the shoreline, especially at Plaice Cove, where parts of several homes were torn away. In all, 11 houses were declared unsafe for habitation because of storm damage. Downed power lines hampered the efforts of the police, public works, and fire departments, whose crews and officers worked around the clock attempting to clear roads and to rescue people trapped at the Beach. At one point, water two feet deep swept through the fire and police stations. The National Guard was sent by the State to assist with the evacuation effort. The successful rescue efforts were perhaps made easier because of the "practice" that crews had received just two weeks earlier, on January 20, when a 20-inch snowstorm, with winds gusting to 70 mph, battered the seacoast. This storm left some drifts 20 feet high, but highway departments were able to cope with the snowfall because it lasted only about 11 hours. The February storm, however, continued unabated for parts of three days. For travelers and commuters, the storm was especially difficult. Interstate highways quickly became clogged with snowbound vehicles, preventing plows from clearing the roads. Some Hampton commuters could not get home for two days, and some had to recover their cars from tow lots. That storm cost the Town some $32,000 over and above disaster funds provided by the state and federal governments. Injuries to the town crew resulted in 3,752 hours of sick leave. Remarkably, no lives were lost, nor was much of the beach lost from erosion.

Most of these heavy snowstorms were northeasters," coastal gales blowing across the ocean from that direction and crashing directly onto the New Hampshire seacoast. Most of the storms of the 1920s and the 1930s, when White Rocks Island washed away and the beachfront was repeatedly flooded, were northeasters. In July 1926, for example, a coastal storm lifted the roof and ripped off the front veranda of the Delta Apartments; it also blew down and scattered the contents of 15 tents on Boar's Head. In January 1933,

A great storm, with the highest run of tides in the memory of anyone now living, took place last Friday and Saturday .... The Shore Boulevard suffered much, some sections being completely wrecked. Breakwaters and sea walls were battered to pieces and offered no resistance to the great sea that pounded the coast from the Merrimack to the Piscataqua. The surf ran higher than was ever known before and nothing could stop its fury. Houses that were within the danger line were smashed to pieces and there was great loss in many sections. No estimate can yet be made of the damage, but experts agree that the loss will be larger than was ever suffered in the last fifty years ....

It was this storm, described in more detail elsewhere, that finally convinced residents to accept the State's offer to build new breakwaters in exchange for Hampton's surrender of rights to the beachfront.

The State did build a breakwater, but only north of Great Boar's Head. The beach south of the Head remained unprotected, and storms in the 1940s, including one in April 1940, which was termed the worst since 1933, battered the main beachfront. The town parking lot on Ocean Boulevard was repeatedly destroyed, and officials feared the police/comfort station might be undermined and toppled into the sea. Not until after World War II did economic conditions permit the construction of the main beach breakwater. While northeasters often send waves crashing over the breakwaters, the damage caused by these coastal storms has been limited because of the seawalls. Flooding causes most of the property damage these days. When storms strike in connection with high tides, the waters can flow 3 feet deep or more, especially west of Ashworth Avenue, where so many cottages have been built upon filled marshland. In flooding called the worst since the 1880s, a 1959 normal tide of 10.7 feet was swelled by northeast winds to an estimated 14 feet. During high tide, water was 4 inches deep in the fire station.

Hurricanes, storm tracks from the southeast, have also battered Hampton periodically and remain a serious potential threat, especially because of the low-lying property at Hampton Beach. New England's most famous hurricane, that of September 21, 1938, did relatively little damage at the Beach, but many trees in the rest of town were blown down by its 88 mph winds. A socalled "baby hurricane" blew through the region in November 1950. Its 75 mph winds blew down huge trees in the Pine Grove Cemetery and collapsed four houses. At the Seabrook end of the Hampton River Bridge, a five-car garage was picked up and its roof was deposited on Lafayette Road, three and a half miles inland.

A more serious hurricane visited the area in 1954. Called Carol, the storm hit on September 1. High winds toppled hundreds of elm trees, and Selectman Donald Ring survived the crash of a tree onto his automobile while he was driving on Exeter Road. Ring was able to crawl Out of the car unharmed. Fallen trees also blocked most streets, damaged some houses, and brought down most power lines in the seacoast, causing the electric company to bring in emergency crews from out of state. Many boats were destroyed, and, as usual, commercial fishermen reported heavy losses of gear. Rockingham County was declared a disaster area, allowing residents of the 37 towns to apply for low-interest loans. Six years later, Hurricane Donna swept through the seacoast in September. Although Beach residents were evacuated, the advance warning of weather forecasters allowed boat owners ample time to secure their vessels or to haul them from the water.

Hurricanes pose special difficulties for a resort community, and Hampton's emergency services were tested in August 1976, when Hurricane Belle was reported on its way. Of the 10,000 to 12,000 people on the beach, some 7,500 elected to be evacuated to Hampton's schools, where volunteers handed out blankets, made coffee, and provided food. Fortunately, the hurricane scare proved to be just that; by 2:30 A.M., the alert was called off. The hurricane had veered inland and the tired evacuees were returned to their hotels, motels, and campgrounds, while the many volunteers and town crews and officials breathed a joint sigh of relief. Although criticized by some people for overreacting in ordering the evacuation, Town Manager Peter Lombardi said he would do it again, but he called for improved and expanded emergency communications equipment. In 1985, Hurricane Gloria proved to be a similar threat; the winds blew hard, but the storm veered off and there was little local damage.

Since the days of the 1954 hurricane, there has been extensive beach construction on the marshes, and another hurricane with the force of Carol would be likely to cause millions of dollars in property damage.

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