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Friday, September 19, 2008

Hurricane of 1938 - Part 1

This begins a three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938, as this September 21st marks the 70th anniversary of the storm. Above is a photo of a flooded Hartford, and it is from the collection of the Hartford Public Library. Rather than post photos of the storm's devastation, because almost all that I've found are still under copyright restrictions, I will instead include links where you can see some very dramatic shots of what the hurricane did.

I will also for the first time include footnotes at the end of this series, because there is a lot of material which requires notation. This is more an article than an essay, and the incredible facts of the Hurricane of 1938 fly fast and furious.

Sit back then, and remember. Or if you don't remember, then pull up a chair and imagine what it was like when the impossible happened. For some people, it was the end of the world.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on a helpless New Orleans, and the anxiety with which Hurricane Gustav was observed on its approach to that same area seems to have visited a new era upon us and a new relationship with these storms, once considered meteorological freaks. The New England hurricane of 1938 was considered a freak, and now in this new era of devastating possibilities, it illustrates how helpless an entire region can be when, unlike in modern hurricane forecasting, no one even knows a hurricane is approaching.

The autumn of 1938, a period of time that came between the depths of the Depression and the height of war, atmospherically was shadowed with fear that was the result of some peculiar current happenings, but the danger that ultimately materialized was the one never imagined.

As Orson Welles put it in his famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast that October, “With infinite complacence people went to and fro of the earth about their little affairs, secure in the assurance of their dominion over this small, spinning fragment of solar driftwood….” (1)

The events of the preceding month left the populace of this planet anything but complacent, and by the time Welles delivered his knockout punch, nobody, particularly in New England, felt safe anymore. One of those events was the Munich Pact crisis, reports of which were broadcast over the radio with staccato urgency. Both the Munich Pact crisis and the War of the Worlds were brought to us immediately, intimately, through radio.

The third big event which occurred that autumn, devastating to the northeast, was what came to be called the Hurricane of 1938, and unlike the two other crises, the danger it presented was real, the aftermath was severe, and it was not covered by radio. Clocked at 186 mph, today it would be called a category 5 hurricane.

In retrospect, the Hurricane of 1938 gives an interesting perspective on the resilience of human beings left to save themselves when infrastructure is suddenly made fragile, or wiped clean away, and when swollen rivers destroy what manufacturing had managed to survive the Depression. Millions of dollars were lost, miles of coastline were altered or swept away. Nearly 700 people were killed. (2)

In that murky late summer/early autumn when reality took a back seat to war with Germany and war with Mars, the hurricane is remembered clearly only by a generation of New Englanders and Long Islanders now in their 80s and older. Impressions of that storm were profound and they lasted, yet at the time war, even with Martians, was more easily believed than a tropical hurricane in New England. It was such a myth that the United States Weather Bureau assumed the east coast was out of danger once the storm passed Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The hurricane that began as myth became legend in the northeast. It was even lionized as the ultimate joke on a people who take their weather seriously. The feeling of unreality was what most remember about the storm, of a strange yellow-colored sky, of rain blowing across the air sideways instead of falling downward, of tasting the salt sea far inland, far from the shore.

After passing Cape Hatteras, the storm had gone out to sea. However, it headed north, increased momentum and covered 600 miles of ocean in just twelve hours, (3) an average of 50 mph. (4) At that time, ocean weather was gathered by voluntary reports from merchant ships and commercial planes. There was no hurricane-tracking aircraft, no satellite photos. This storm, in macabre coincidence, also hit at high tide.

The Providence Journal Company published a report shortly after the storm that lamented, “The story can never emphasize too much the element of people’s unawareness of the hurricane’s imminence…It was this very element of unawareness that cost scores of lives, the lives of those who stayed and thought they were safe, and were swept away when a sea whipped to great heights engulfed them….” (5)

Rhode Island suffered the highest casualty rate with 312 dead. (6) This special publication noted that the storm brought out the best in humanity in the desperate trials of rescuers and would-be rescuers. There were looters, too.

For others, disbelief and shattered confidence, loss of family, friends and home was the lasting souvenir. This was not yet an age of thick skin and sophisticated if somewhat benign response to tragedy.

It hit New England on Wednesday, September 21st. On the fourth of that month, Washington announced a new study conducted by the Navy would record data on the origin of hurricanes. Their “ringside seat” for observing was Swan Island, 150 miles off the coast of Honduras. (7)

The “European situation” was growing more urgent with the Nazi Party rally at Nuremburg. Western Massachusetts prepared its West Springfield fairgrounds for the 22nd annual Eastern States Exposition, an agricultural fair for all six New England states. The fair this year was scheduled for September 18th through the 24th. (8)

By September 10th, headlines in the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News warned that Britain and France were preparing for war, and it appeared that the immediate future had more to do with man-made crisis than natural disasters, but a hurricane was forming near Cape Verde in the Atlantic Ocean. Its later discovery by the U.S. Weather Bureau would be compiled from a report by a ship at sea, six days later on September 16th. (9) Meanwhile, Germany was reported to be massing troops on the Czech border. War seemed a certainty.

On the morning of Tuesday, September 20th, the day before the hurricane struck, the first in-depth news of the hurricane was reported. According to Grady Norton of the U.S. Weather Bureau, the hurricane was heading for Florida, but it had turned out to sea.

“While this is reassuring,” the report concluded, “we urge that you stand by for another 12 hours…” It was impossible at that time, Mr. Norton felt, to say whether the whole Atlantic coast would escape the storm. (10)

Come back next Tuesday for Part 2. Here is a link to some very dramatic photos of the storm's wreckage.

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