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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hurricane of 1938, Part 2

This is the second of a three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938.

The Boston Globe announced that the European powers were yielding to Hitler, and then somewhere on page two, a short note about a hurricane moving toward the Bahamas. Forecasters believed there was a “fifty-fifty” chance of the hurricane’s moving back northward or northeastward, but “in that event, its effects probably would not be felt along the Atlantic Coast.” (11)

Two disasters, war and a hurricane, both were shrugged off, but in time, neither would be averted.

Rainy weather in New England had defeated many sporting events and harvest fairs that month, and more rain was predicted. The Boston Evening Globe on the 20th reported the hurricane passing east of Hatteras, its exact location recorded at 28N, 75W. Florida did appear safe, so there was no more worry about the storm. It went out to sea. (12)

But it shot north, to an already rain-soaked New England that did not know it was there.

On Wednesday the 21st, hours before the hurricane struck, the New York Times ran a curious portent of an editorial. The article congratulated science on its advances in hurricane tracking and referred to our knowledge of the current hurricane which missed Florida.

“If New York and the rest of the world have been so well informed about the cyclone, it is because of an admirably organized meteorological service. From every ship in the Caribbean Sea, reports are radioed to Washington, Havana, San Juan, and other stations….” (13)

The weather report in the newspaper for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut was “rain, probably heavy today.” (14)

The Springfield Daily News reported that the Czech cabinet voted to surrender to Hitler, while the rain locally was such that flood waters created a “virtual state of emergency” in the South End of Springfield. (15) The Exposition in West Springfield stoutly declared they would not close despite the rising flood waters on the Westfield River which bordered the fairgrounds. The entire Connecticut River valley was in danger of flood.

That late afternoon, the intense low pressure and seemingly unending rain were relieved by that worse natural disaster in New England history. The hurricane which missed Florida and had been forgotten, slammed into Long Island and traveled up the obliging Connecticut River valley, with winds reaching over 180 mph. The evidence of something strange happening was discovered in spurts.

Families were evacuated from Athol, Massachusetts, a small town in the northern central part of the state which faced the difficulty typical to factory towns. (17) Its rivers, responsible for its industrial existence, were flooding the factories and the homes. Like islands at sea, these small industrial communities could not have been left more isolated if there had been walls built around them; and so walls were constructed, in swollen rivers, washed out railroad tracks, bridges, and in barricades of fallen trees. In some communities, notably Peterborough, New Hampshire and New London, Connecticut, fires started and quickly spread. The New London fire destroyed much of the business section. (18) Each town faced its own peculiar troubles, and faced them quite alone.

The railroads were impassible due to trees and debris, and in some cases the tracks were twisted wreckage. Then the body count began, but even the media’s sudden discovery of the situation would not be enough to fully realize the extent of the storm’s destruction. That job would be left to the Red Cross and government agencies, and that aftermath would take months.

Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was dry was moment and then under ten feet of water the next. (19) The wind tore roofs off buildings and downed power lines, and as the Hartford Courant reported, “caused theaters to be emptied in alarm.” (20) Over 300 people were killed in Rhode Island, the “Ocean State.” (21) At Watch Hill, a crowd examining the ugly, churning surf were swept away in a single huge wave. Sixty-nine were found dead, and sixty-one others were not found. (22)

Boston Harbor sailings were canceled in these days of trans-Atlantic ocean travel. The Eastern Steamship line canceled for the first time in fifty years of operation. (23) The steeple of the First Unitarian Church of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts was ripped off and dashed to its pews, only one of several church steeples that did not survive the storm. (24)

People in need were left largely to the hospitality of neighbors or their own beleaguered Depression-strapped town and city governments. People who were injured or stranded were at the mercy of the elements and time. Only the dead were without burden.

Many newspapers the day after the storm excitedly chased the scattered facts, but failed to note the magnitude.

In Springfield, where seventy trolley cars were stalled about the city, headlines of the Springfield Daily News raced but barely managed to keep pace with the rising Connecticut River. (25) Even the intrepid organizers of the Eastern States Exposition had to admit defeat when the roof of a building was hurled 100 feet through the air, and police ordered an evacuation of the fair, (26) and cattle were prodded up onto the bridge over the Westfield River to Agawam, to escape the flooded fairgrounds. (27)

A flimsy network of local police and adventurous Boy Scouts, which had comprised the vanguard of the rescue personnel, was bolstered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s calling out the Army, the Red Cross, the Works Progress Administration, and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The coastal areas were worse hit by the combined and quite separate tragedies of the powerful winds and the very high tides. Inland, all major cities and populated areas were located on rivers, a legacy of the Industrial Revolution. In Hartford, Connecticut, as in Springfield, Massachusetts, WPA, CCC and volunteers strived to save dikes along the looming Connecticut River.

The wind had destroyed much, but while the sudden danger had passed, there was left a more insidious peril, the incessant floods. For New England, the four-day rainfall that coincided with the hurricane left up to seventeen inches of rain in more afflicted areas. The crops of the harvest season were destroyed, including the Connecticut and Western Massachusetts tobacco crops, (28) an almost total loss of the region’s apple crop, much damage to sugar maple trees and small truck farms. (29) Traveling to stores was impeded by blocked highways, and wrecked railroad tracks prohibited normal shipment of foodstuffs from other parts of the country.

As victims’ names were added to published lists, the regional tragedy brought nation-wide concern. Families from across the US had sent their children to New England colleges, and the semester had just begun.

For more photos on the destruction caused by the Hurricane of 1938, have a look at this website.

Come back Friday for the conclusion of this three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938.

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