, Gloucester, MA

June 3, 2008

Storm Blindsides Cape Ann

Gail McCarthy

GLOUCESTER, Mass. -- A northeaster's giant tides and gale-force winds blindsided Cape Ann on Oct. 30, 1991, leaving a path of destruction that demolished homes, devoured waterfront property and sank a local fishing vessel with all six hands lost at sea.

When the winds started blowing on Monday, Oct. 28, no one expected that two days later the communities along Cape Ann's coast would suffer more than $35 million in damage to both private and public property.

Hurricane Grace, moving up from the Caribbean, had after all headed far out to sea. But when hurricane's remnants combined with an offshore Atlantic storm, it created northeasterly winds and surging tides that struck with a fierceness that took residents by total surprise.

The resulting storm came to be referred to as the "Halloween Gale," or the "No-name Northeaster of '91."

On the first afternoon of the storm. the Coast Guard reported 15- to 20-foot breaking seas off Eastern Point, and wind speeds were a steady 35 knots and gusting up to 50 knots at the Coast Guard station.

Hours before the late afternoon tide, 30-foot waves slammed ashore and began battering many coastal houses, businesses and breakwaters.

Mountainous waves hurled debris and car-sized boulders ashore. The raging sea gouged chunks of asphalt from roads, twisted guardrails, and blasted piers apart as if artillery had struck them. Beach dunes lay mutilated; the entire coastline became transformed into something resembling the aftermath of an invasion.

The potent forces of the northeaster pushed tons of water through houses, reducing them to piles of rubble. Walls caved in and fell under the weight of the seas.

Traffic clogged many local roads, particularly the Back Shore, where residents were eager to catch a glimpse of the enormous waves. Meanwhile, flooded coastal roads left residents throughout Cape An isolated by the rising water. Live, downed electrical wires created another danger.

The communities of Gloucester and Rockport declared a state of emergency just before high tide that Wednesday. Civil Defense Departments and all police and fire department personnel organized quickly to take action.

Emergency personnel evacuated Bearskin Neck residents because of the deadly combination of leaking propane gas and sparking electrical wires. Other coastal residents were also evacuated.

At Long Beach, two local men and volunteer firemen rescued a group of people with a canoe and rubber raft who were trapped because the road flooded and the water buried cars to the roof at the peak of high tide.

In the aftermath of the pre-Halloween storm, residents who were hit hard scrambled to put their lives back together.

The powerful storm destroyed homes from Andrews Point in Rockport to Gloucester's Brier Neck and Eastern Point, and down to Magnolia. Where stately homes once stood, only a shell remains. Foundations and pieces of hundreds of other homes were washed away. Hot tubs, refrigerators, bureaus, beds, bric-a-brac, and other furnishings were all washed onto lawns and even up onto streets.

Many lobstermen throughout the Cape, who had already been suffering from the nation's economic recession, saw their gear wiped out. Tremendous ocean surges destroyed thousands of lobster traps, crushing them and tangling them into large balls of wood, wire mesh and rope.

The most tragic incident was the loss of six men at sea.

The storm hit as the 70-foot swordfishing boat Andrea Gail was steaming back to Gloucester. Before communications was lost, the six-man crew reported 30-foot seas and winds up to 80 knots. For seven days, the Coast Guard unsuccessfully searched for the men.

Gloucester suffered its most serious damage along Atlantic Road, on Brier Neck, on Shore Road in Magnolia, and at Stage Fort Park. The Lane's Cove breakwater also was damaged and the Magnolia pier ripped apart.

Rockport, which has borne the brunt of storms for centuries, fared no better this time. Businesses on Tuna Wharf on Bearskin Neck suffered heavy losses. The portions of Pigeon Cove breakwater that were repaired after the 1978 storm were again ripped away and before the storm ended, half the breakwater had tumbled into the ocean. Both the Long Beach boardwalk and seawall were extensively damaged.

Surging tides also damaged seawalls at West Manchester Beach and Singing Beach. The waves tore the porch off the Manchester Bath and Tennis Club.

Restaurants along the Main Street in Essex suffered extensive damage as the waves pummeled the buildings and flooded over the Causeway, closing it to traffic for more than four hours.

The storm injured a few people who found themselves caught in dangerous situations although they believed they were safe.

A Gloucester resident, who had been standing on a wall on the far side of Atlantic Road, barely escaped with his life when a monstrous wave struck the rock wall which toppled on top of him. He grabbed a nearby tree preventing him from being washed into the sea. He was hospitalized for a broken thigh bone.

Manchester's police photographer received more than 100 stitches in his leg and an injured head when he underestimated the seas. A wave struck and slammed him into the Singing Beach bathhouse.

A lucky Magnolia resident survived a hit when a wave washed him on the rocks at Rafe's Chasm and another washed him back, according to a witness.

The seas also nearly swept away two men on a porch at Andrews Point after it took the stairs out from underneath them.