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Friday, September 26, 2008

Hurricane of 1938 - Part 3

In Hartford, there were 4,000 homeless, (30) but by the weekend, cleanup was advancing and the railroads would announce some new schedules on Sunday. (31) The Army Corps of Engineers estimated that 250 million trees were lost in the region. (32) Five years later, the U.S. Forest Service in Williantic, Connecticut announced that the last of the hurricane timber in the state was finally salvaged, and so closed its office there. (33)

The trees were a heartfelt loss. Recollections of the tumbling trees bowled over by an unseen hand is foremost in people’s memories. The terrific wind lasted only for about four hours, but in that time the landscape was forever changed. Trees which had stood since the Revolution were toppled. The dunes along the beaches would build up again, but it would take fifty years, it was said at the time, for the trees to return to their former glory.

It has since been 70 years, and we know now that those scenes are gone for good. An editorial in the New York Times by Elmer Davis noted, “The first thing almost everyone said was that it didn’t matter about the houses, they could be rebuilt; but the trees…would never be restored in the lifetime of anyone now living here.” (34)

The city of Springfield, Massachusetts lost 16,000 shade trees. The lumber pulled from the city streets was piled up at the City Infirmary, most of which was distributed to welfare recipients to use as fuel. The price of wood then was $6.50 per cord. (35)

About a week after the storm, First Lady Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt arrived in Springfield to deliver an address at the Municipal Auditorium on behalf of the Springfield Teacher’s Club to help raise money for the Child Welfare Fund.

Mayor Roger L. Putnam and two of the committee met her in Harford, Connecticut to personally escort her because of the “precarious travel conditions.”(36) Her address on the “Problems of Youth” was standing-room only. In his welcoming speech, Mayor Putnam asked Mrs. Roosevelt to convey their gratitude to the President for so swiftly sending out Federal aid, and help from the CCC, the WPA among other agencies to help in the crisis. Reportedly, Mrs. Roosevelt phoned her husband and kept him abreast of the conditions she witnessed in New England. Evidently, Eleanor’s efficiency could rival FEMA’s. (37)

The high death toll, nearly 700 lives lost, was the result of the storm crossing with no warning what was, and still is, a densely populated area. One note of good fortune was that though some 369 cottages were destroyed on Misquamicut Beach, Rhode Island, the death toll there was held at 41, as the New England beachfront properties were populated mainly in the summer months, and in late September, had already been boarded up and closed. (38)

The injured numbered over 1,700. Homes completely destroyed amounted to nearly 9,000, with damaged to nearly 73,000. The total economic loss was set at $3 million 1938 dollars. (39) Over 93,000 families shared in this loss, and over 15,000 families required, or at least sought, assistance. Many delayed requesting aid “with typical New England reticence” until they had exhausted resources of their own. (40)

Some thirty-two immunization centers were set up to curtail the spread of illness from cholera and other such diseases when water and sanitation systems are impaired.(41)

Of the New England states, according to the Red Cross, Massachusetts led in the most storm damage and injuries, though Rhode Island suffered the highest death toll. (42)

More relief funds were required in Massachusetts than in the other states, and western Massachusetts was harder hit than the Boston area because the storm precariously traveled up the Connecticut River valley. Fund raising was slow, although there were contributions from sympathetic donors through the country, including a group of California hoboes who collected $2.10 specifically for the City of Springfield.(43)

Hurricanes, as it happens, are not new to New England. Governor William Bradford, Massachusetts Bay Colony leader, recorded a severe tropical storm in August 1635, and there was also the Great September Gale of 1815. However, the people who suffered those storms did not rely on man-made infrastructure.

In 1938, almost all telephone and telegraph communications were crippled between Boston and New York. Train and bus service was hampered, and air travel, rarely used, enjoyed a brief if desperate deluge by stranded business people. The use of short-wave radio helped during the complete loss of communications in many places. The tracks of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad were blocked for two weeks. (44)

About 240 communities, it was estimated, were virtually isolated. Trains, steamships, telegraph. It sounds rather archaic today, but New England was heavily populated and therefore was one of the most sophisticated in terms of communications and city infrastructure.

One should not attempt to draw too many parallels between Hurricane Katrina and the New England Hurricane of 1938. They were both unique in the breadth of the damage they brought to the lives and the cultures of each stricken area, and both inevitably to become part of the folklore of the region.

The lesson appears to be that if it happened once, it can happen again. New England has had a span of several years, even decades to recover after each hurricane since the 1938 storm. New Orleans may not be so lucky, as evidenced by Hurricane Gustav. The area around Houston and Galveston, Texas are currently grappling with the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. If the warming trend of the ocean continues, perhaps New England may not be so lucky, either.

This concluces our three-part series on the Hurricane of 1938.


Footnotes for this series:

1) Howard Koch. “War of the Worlds” radio play. (NY: Nostalgia Lane, 1982).
2) William Elliott Minsinger, M.D., ed. “The 1938 Hurricane.” (East Milton, MA: Blue Hill Observatory, 1988), p. 9
3) Federal Writers Project. New England Hurricane. (Boston: Hale, Cushman, & Flint, 1938), p. 7.
4) Everett S. Allen. A Wind to Shake the World. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1976), pp. 347-348.
5) Providence Journal Company. The Great Hurricane and Tidal Wave - Rhode Island. (Providence: September 1938), p.1.
6) ibid.
7) New York Times. September 3, 1938, p. F-9.
8) Springfield Daily News. September 6, 1938, p. 5.
9) American Red Cross. New York-New England Hurricane and Floods - 1938 - Official Report of Relief Operations. (Washington: October, 1939), p. 1.
10) New York Times. September 20, 1938, p. 1.
11) Boston Daily Globe. September 20, 1938, p. 2.
12) Boston Evening Globe. September 20, 1938, p. 9.
13) New York Times. September 21, 1938, p.24L.
14) p. 51L.
15) Springfield Daily News. September 21, 1938, p. 1.
16) P. 2.
17) Ibid.
18) Photo Record - Hurricane and Flood - New England’s Greatest Disaster. (NY: New England Historical Events Assoc., Inc., 1938), p. 1.
19)Aubrey Parkman. Army Engineers in New England. (Waltham, Mass.: US Army Corps of Engineers, New England Division, 1978), p. 179.
20)Hartford Courant. September 22, 1938, p. 1.
21)Providence Journal Company, p. 1.
22)Newsweek. October 3, 1938, p. 13.
23) BDG. September 22, 1938, p. 9.
24) Newsweek. October 3, 1938, p. 13.
25) SDN. August 18, 1958.
26) SDN. September 22, 1938, p. 2.
27) P. 7.
28) American Red Cross, p. 5.
29) Federal Writers Project. New England Hurricane, p. 219.
30) Hartford Times, September 24, 1938, p. 1.
31) Boston Evening Globe. September 24, p. 1.
32) Army Corps of Engineers, p.179.
33) Allen, p. 95.
34) NYT. September 24, 1938, p. 10.
35) Springfield Union. April 2, 1939.
36) SDN. September 29, 1938, p. 3.
37) SDN. September 30, 1938, p. 13.
38) Robert L. Nichols & Alwyn F. Marston. “Shoreline Changes in Rhode Island Produced by the Hurricane of September 21, 1938” published in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 1939, p. 1362.
39) American Red Cross, Official Report of October 21, 1938, quoted by Nichols, p. 1362.
40) American Red Cross, Official Report of 1939, p. 24.
41) P. 52.
42) P. 78.
43) SDN. September 26, 1938, p.5.
44) Photo Record - Hurricane and Flood - New England’s Greatest Disaster, p. 1
45) Allen, p. 349.

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