By Catherine C. Brooks
On Tuesday August 22,1933, Momma, Lou and I were at Granddaddy and Granny Richardson’s on Hollywood Avenue, Hampton, Virginia, for a second time that summer. By the time Granddaddy arrived home from work in Newport News Shipyard that day, the wind lashed the willow and mimosa trees lining the street, bending them near the ground, and rain beat against the front of the house.
“Looks like we are in for a bad storm,” Granddaddy said when he entered the house, coming the few feet from the driveway, drenched to his skin. The sun had been shining a few hours earlier. Without today’s modern technology, we wondered where such a storm had originated.
He bathed and donned dry clothes before we ate supper. Granny pulled the shades earlier than usual since darkness engulfed us before time for sunset. So other than hearing the wind and rain lashing against the house all seemed normal. When Granddaddy listened to the evening news on the radio, the announcer spoke of a storm that had made up off the North Carolina coast with gale force winds. The announcer feared it would blow upward into the Chesapeake Bay and its creeks and rivers, causing high tides. We had northeasters most every September when the tide rose so we thought it nothing more than one of those September storms a little early.
We made our way to bed as usual, but loud banging noises awoke me sometime during the early morning hours. Since the three of us shared a bed with Momma between Lou and me, I just had to awaken her if she still slept—I feared for my life. So I whispered, “Momma, are you awake?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Slip out of bed and pull the chain to switch on the light fixture. Then I’ll check to see what is hitting the front window.”
When my feet hit the floor, I realized the room actually felt chilly even though on the previous afternoon Momma had closed all the windows that usually stayed open in summer. I pulled the chain, hanging from the light fixture but nothing happened. What was I to do?
I felt my way back from the foot to the head of the bed to whisper to Momma. She had come over to the side of the bed and climbed out, tucking the covers around Lou, who still slept. Finding her flashlight, she went and pulled the chain on the hall light fixture. Still no light appeared.
“The electricity is off,” Momma whispered. “We had better go back to bed until morning. The noise is just the wind beating the porch furniture about.”
At home we always had our kerosene lamps, and I wished for one.
When we finally knew Granddaddy and Granny were up and stirring in the
house, Momma raised the shades. Although some clouds remained in the sky,
we could see to dress. When we got to the dining room, Granny had candles
in the center of the table and she was cooking breakfast by what light
the gas stove gave.
As soon as breakfast dishes were washed and put in place, Granddaddy told us all to climb into the car. He wanted to see what damage had been done. We headed to Buckroe Beach, driving slowly as he neared the parking area—electric wires lay on the side of the street. We couldn’t go all the way to the usual parking lot, but a policeman told him to park on the street behind the last car that had arrived. And a guard admonished that we could get out of the car, but no one should touch or step on any of the wires because they might have current running through them. The linemen were working as fast as possible.
Nothing looked familiar, and we had been at the same beach on Saturday of the week before. Piles of sand along the opposite side of the street looked odd until someone explained cars sat beneath the sand. Then I saw a dark spot, showing atop one sand pile. All automobiles that belonged to guests in the two hotels, residents that owned businesses and employees on the night shift had to be dug out of sand. We couldn’t see the roller coaster that had towered above everything else.
Out of the car, we began to walk toward the beach. We began to see that the beach had become narrower than it had been on Saturday. A woman of color commented their hotel remained livable, but the white folks’ hotel had blown to pieces. Midweek the hotel had few guests so no lives were lost. Walking on towards the amusement park, we saw what looked like large erector set pieces of metal, some bent and twisted and others at the water’s edge. Granddaddy said they were pieces of the roller coaster. For me as a seven-year-old girl, the impossible had happened. Debris floated on the waters as far as we could see, and we had to watch every step so as not to walk on boards from the wrecked buildings. Disaster had taken place. With the crowd becoming larger, we climbed back in Granddaddy’s car. The policeman guided as we turned around, and we left my favorite summer resort, never to look the same again.
Feeling somber, Granddaddy drove back towards his house, but he turned toward the waterfront when we reached LaSalle Avenue. I wondered where the back yards had gone until someone said the tide took most of the yards with it when it went out. Another park-like setting had been in front of Buxton Hospital. But when we arrived, the trees floated in the Chesapeake Bay, and the benches couldn’t be seen. What devastation. On and on we drove, seeing the wind-blown destruction that had taken place when we had only heard the porch chairs beating against the front of the house.
Granddaddy and Granny purchased a good supply of candles from a corner drug store with dim lights, powered by a noisy generator, before we made our way back to their house. Granddaddy learned while in the store that they had copies of the Richmond Times Dispatch scheduled for delivery on Thursday morning. He put his name on the list so he’d be sure to get his.
After we ate sandwiches for lunch, the adults began repairing the damaged porch chairs so they could be used. The repainting would come later. Lou and I sat on the porch with Granddaddy while Momma helped Granny cook the evening meal. They needed to use things from the Fridgidare before the perishable foods spoilt. We ate early so the dishes could be washed before sunset. Lou crawled on the sofa and slept while the adults sat in porch chairs, enjoying the cool breeze, and I sat, leaning against a post near the steps. We retired to our beds by candlelight earlier than usual.
On Thursday morning, Granddaddy fetched the Richmond Times Dispatch the
druggist had saved for him. He looked glum when he handed it to Momma.
She read aloud, “Mathews County has been swept off the map.” She burst
into tears and left for the bedroom. Later she picked the newspaper up
and sat to read more. Only parts of the county had been destroyed when
the eye of a hurricane had passed over it. The wind had struck northeast,
but then it turned southeast. That’s when the destructive seas rose higher
and higher, covering many buildings. It completely destroyed or tore roofs
from buildings in the higher part of the county.
As we drove up the lane, all looked well. We got out the car, seeing a lot of cottonwood limbs in the yard, but no sign of the water line. We walked to the southern side of the house and toward the branch. There we saw the water line at the edge of the yard, Momma burst into tears of joy, squealing, “It didn’t even come in the yard.”
The smoke house, barn and corncrib sat as if the storm had missed our buildings. We rode with Granddaddy and Granny to Aunt Rite’s house, which stood on the opposite side of the road and appeared untouched by the storm. Lou and I played with our cousins outside while the adults went in the house to talk. I knew Momma’s fears were over.
© 2003 Catherine C.
Brooks. All rights reserved. Contact Catherine Brooks @
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