A snug harbor in a storm

Published 6:54 pm Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Whether it’s the fringe effects of a huge hurricane like Joaquin or your garden variety of Northeaster, Isle of Wight County is blessed with high ground.


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Back in 1962, the Ash Wednesday Storm, described as one of the 10 most destructive of the 20th century, pounded the Virginia coast. Smithfield’s low areas flooded, as they do whenever the tide reaches unusual heights, but the real damage occurred on the lower Peninsula and along the coast. The storm pounded Buckroe and Virginia Beach, destroying piers and building. As it ploughed a path up the East Coast, that storm (not even a hurricane) took the lives of 40 people and injured more than a thousand.


In Smithfield, the tide rose and temporarily flooded out low-lying businesses.


Isle of Wight County has only a handful of significantly occupied places subject to tidal flooding — the mouth of Jones Creek, Church Street and Wharf Hill in Smithfield, and Burwell’s Bay. They have all changed dramatically during the last half-century.


The section of Church Street built at the confluence of the Pagan River and Cypress Creek has been a center of business activity for more than a century, and the owners of businesses there have always-dreaded high tides. For a 50-year period beginning in the early 20th century, there were more than a half dozen businesses in the bottom. Today, Smithfield Station is the only business remaining. Its buildings are built to withstand most anything nature throws their way. But parking areas remain vulnerable. Though they have been raised over the years, you just can’t pile up enough scallop shells to beat a tide that’s more than 4 feet above normal.


The other low-laying area in town is Commerce Street, below Wharf Hill. Up until the middle of the 20th century, Commerce Street was loaded with — well, commerce. And more than a dozen businesses on either side of that street were subject to flooding whenever a significant Northeaster — let along a hurricane — came ashore. As late as my youth, town and county residents would converge on Bell Hardware, located on the wharf, to help move nail kegs and other valuables to a second floor storage room when flooding threatened.


Rescue has been a watermen’s harbor since the 1800s and is no stranger to flooding. But, like Smithfield, it is sheltered from winds that churn the James River and thus is a snug harbor.


Burwell’s Bay has been a favored vacation location for Virginians for a century. It is subject to east and northeast winds coming across the James River, and the waves those winds bring with them. Much of Burwell’s Bay was demolished during Hurricane Isabel.


High hills, shelter from the wind and reasonably deep water. That’s the definition of a snug harbor, and Smithfield is one, though it doesn’t seem so when the wind goes north and the tide is 4 feet above normal.