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McManus: Sandy highlights tides of change all along the East Coast

Debris litters the beach north of Indian River

Debris litters the beach north of Indian River Inlet in southern Delaware after waves churned up by superstorm Sandy demolished hundreds of yards of beach dunes and left state Route 1, the major north-south coastal highway, covered in sand. (Oct. 30, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

In the last week of August, in the fading hours of a brilliant day, I sat on the sand at Bethany Beach, Del., full of regret that I had to leave the next morning.

My family calls this time of day "the golden hours," when the setting sun has lost its intensity and its remaining light, now at our backs, puts the ocean and the beach in an amber glow, and everything seems right with the world.

During that visit, the beach had seemed exceptionally wide and healthy, as if all of the restoration work to undo the effects of wind and erosion, the human efforts to battle against the forces of nature, had actually succeeded.

The water was exceptionally clear, free of the sludge and jellyfish that sometimes thrive with the warming temperatures of an August ocean. The sandbar that had disappeared decades ago seemed to be re-establishing itself, to the point where you could swim out in shallow water to breaking waves way beyond the lifeguard's stand. The difference between high and low tide was calculable, instead of thumping waves pounding the shore into the same steep ridge at the same spot, day after day, regardless of the tide charts.

That evening I took a photo of closed umbrellas, their backs so illuminated by the setting sun that they cast deep, almost violet shadows on the sand in front of them. Beach chairs had been casually abandoned at the water's edge, sandy towels rumpled all around them. In the last days of summer, that particular spot of the world seemed immune from strife.

Monday morning I was online, tracking images near that same stretch of beach. On the Bethanycam, which sits on the boardwalk in the heart of town, the image of the beach was, at best, a Seurat drawing, a gray impression to which someone had applied a thick wash. Sky, water, dune grass and sand were one; I could distinguish only the hazy edge of the boardwalk railing, the ghostly blur of a bench.

Then my Internet connection lapsed, and I was left with an empty frame surrounded by colorful ads from the sunny days, of beach restaurants and oceanfront real estate, of golf clubs and vacation rentals.

Forecasters named this mess Frankenstorm and compared it to the Perfect Storm of 1991, another violent confluence of weather systems: part hurricane, part nor'easter with a cyclone thrown in. This week's storm reminds me more of the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962, a complex cocktail of pressure systems coupled with the spring equinox and high tides that reached from North Carolina to New England. Its Lenten arrival left some of us wondering whether civilization -- or at least the mid-Atlantic -- was meant to do penance for its sins. It was the first time I realized the fury of nature, its capacity to erase completely a patch of the world.

And I wasn't the only one. That storm, which destroyed many homes on Long Island, made beachfront developers reconsider their construction plans along the shoreline, if only for a while.

Up and down the East Coast, the fury of superstorm Sandy raged on Monday. Cities and towns got hammered, transportation and businesses have been crippled. Lives were endangered and lost. Yet my first thought was of that fragile stretch of beach that I left behind on that gorgeous August afternoon.

We say goodbye, we say, "See you tomorrow" -- often forgetting that everything can change in a day.

Jeanne McManus is a former editor at The Washington Post, where this first appeared.