The Year of the Flood: Hurricane Matthew, Oral Narratives, and Climate History


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.


Whitney Avenue, Sydney, NS. Photo by author

But what value do these stories hold for historians? Why are such comparisons important or useful? Teresa Devor articulates the difficulties faced by many regional climate historians in synthesizing longue-durée data sets, “natural archives or proxy records such as tree rings, ice cores, and sediment cores or […] the observations of colloquial meteorologists” – such as 19th century diarists, who were “consistently attentive to the vicissitudes of the weather” [1]. In addition to these sources, some climate historians have begun to use oral history as a methodological framework for understanding the interplay that exists between ecology and social life. Deb Anderson, writing about experiences of drought in Australia, describes a multigenerational ‘archive’ of memories – oral testimony of a way of life, preserved on grounds of enduring cultural, historical, and evidentiary value” that emerges from individual and collective remembrances [2].

Canadian historians have also utilized such a confluence of oral and data-driven material in their analysis. Julie Cruickshank considers Tlingit and Athapaskan oral traditions as foundational forms of knowledge that underpin historical arguments about changing climes in Arctic and Subarctic communities [3]. Anne Henshaw has made similar arguments in the past, articulating a need to link archaeology, paleoenvironmental science and oral traditions” [4]. Clearly, stories about environmental geography, weather patterns, and storm experiences are more than just small-talk. From my experience speaking to people about the recent hurricane, it’s obvious that residents are more than willing to discuss their perceptions of changing weather patterns, ecological change over time, and how storms such as these are framed by popular understandings of climate change and climate science. Oral narratives provide an interesting avenue forward for climate history research, and – in confluence with other methodological approaches – can help to culturally and analytically frame local experiences of weather events, such as the recent hurricane in Atlantic Canada.

Lachlan MacKinnon is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Gorsebrook Research Institute for Atlantic Canada Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His research interests include international labour history, deindustrialization studies, oral history, and Canadian regionalism.


[1] Teresa Devor, “The Explanatory Power of Climate History for the 19th-Century Maritimes and Newfoundland: A Prospectus,” Acadiensis 43, 2 (2014).


[2] Deb Anderson, “Voices of Endurance: Climate and the power of oral history,” in A Cultural History of Climate Change, edited by Tom Bristow and Thomas H. Ford,  London: Routledge, 2016: 17-37.

[3] Julie Cruickshank, “Glaciers and Climate Change: Perspectives from Oral Tradition,” Arctic 54, 4 (December 2001), 377-393.

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4 thoughts on “The Year of the Flood: Hurricane Matthew, Oral Narratives, and Climate History

  1. D Degroot


    I enjoyed this article. Oral history is indeed an underused resource for climate historians, and not just for more recent histories. Indigenous oral histories may well help us add new perspectives to climate histories going back many centuries, in many previously understudied regions.

    Here’s another article you might find interesting, about a major project led by Georgina Endfield:

    Hall, Alexander, and Georgina Endfield. ““Snow Scenes”: Exploring the Role of Memory and Place in Commemorating Extreme Winters.” Weather, Climate, and Society 8, no. 1 (2016): 5-19.


  2. Lachlan MacKinnon

    Thanks, Dagomar. Absolutely – and authors like Cruikshank have placed indigenous narratives at the heart of much of their analysis. Cheers, too, for the article recommendation – much appreciated.

  3. Jeff Clements

    Nice piece Lachlan – really enjoyed the read!

    I’ll add that I think the utility of historical narratives goes beyond climate history as well. I often argue that ecology in general – especially conservation ecology – can learn a lot from historical narratives, particularly indigenous ones. While such narratives can’t serve as a quantitative documentation of ecological processes, they can certainly serve as drivers of new ecological hypotheses and can act as a solid basis for the implementation of successful modern conservation measures. For example, some of my work has discovered that returning clam shells to clam flats can help to maintain and even enhance clam populations for harvesting by website their habitat – I have quantitative support for that statement. Nonetheless, indigenous people in northern British Columbia have done this for ages, simply to respect the resource (clams) that had prvoided a service to them. As such, I argue that for ecologists and conservationists, actively seeking stories like the one above can greatly aid in formulating hypotheses and establishing successful conservation measures.

    Natural products and pharmaceutical science utilizes indigenous narrative well, but ecology has yet to explore this in depth (for the most part – there is some effort toward achieving this). Unfortunately the arts and sciences still don’t talk to each other enough (yet) and these opportunities for mutually beneficial crossovers often go unrecognized.

  4. Jeff Clements

    Couple of typos (commenting from my smartphone was a poor choice):

    1. “…website their habitat” = “…enhancing their habitat”

    2. “prvoided” = “provided”

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