ActiveHistory.ca repost – The Year of the Flood: Hurricane Matthew, Oral Narratives, and Climate History

The editors of ActiveHistory.ca are currently enjoying our annual end of summer hiatus, but we’ll be back with new content in September. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our most popular and favourite posts from the past year.  Thanks as always to our writers and readers.

The following post was originally featured on October 13, 2016.

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Cabot Street, Sydney, N.S. – 10 October 2016. Photo by author

By Lachlan MacKinnon

The tail-end of Hurricane Matthew battered Nova Scotia and Newfoundland on Monday afternoon and through the evening. Although the damage does not approach the devastation wrought by the system in the Caribbean and other points south, for many in Cape Breton it will be remembered as the storm of a generation. As I drove around the streets of Sydney, scrambling to help check the basements of family and friends for flooding, it struck me that these sorts of extreme weather events promote an interesting form of collective storytelling. As common experiences, they provide the basis for casual small-talk but may also segue into meaningful discussions about climate change, politics, or environmental history. Surveying the flood-soaked South End, onlookers engaged each other with impromptu “oral histories” of past storms and personal experiences.

The October Gale of ’74 looms large in such discussions. While Hurricane Matthew is the worst storm that I remember experiencing, residents were quick to draw comparisons to another unpredicted weather system that pounded the island on October 20th, 1974. Ultimately, thirty-three families were left homeless and more than 1,500 homes were damaged in Sydney alone. According to many in the city, the ’74 Gale was far worse than the recent hurricane. One man – only a child at the time – described using his overcoat as a makeshift sail, jumping into the 145 km/h winds and being carried several feet – not realizing the apparent danger. A 2014 article in the local newspaper, published near the 40th anniversary of the Gale – includes fourteen comments describing local storm experiences. These contain descriptions of trailers being upended, roofs coming undone, and pedestrians narrowly escaping flying debris. Although I had not previously heard of the ’74 Gale, in the days since Hurricane Matthew, I have been confronted time and again by the memories of people who were directly affected.

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