THE GREAT HURRICANE: 1938
By Cherie Burns
Atlantic Monthly. 230 pp. $24
The hurricanes of 2004 -- one of the worst hurricane seasons ever reported in the United States -- did more than $20 billion in damage but took only 59 lives. That's 59 too many, you will say, and of course you are right, but it's a mercifully small toll by comparison with the 6,000 who died in the Galveston hurricane of 1900, the more than 1,800 who died in southern Florida in 1928 or the 600 who died in New England and Long Island in 1938. Before weather forecasting became as sophisticated as it is now, advance warning of major storms was almost nonexistent, leaving people no time to prepare or evacuate, with calamitous consequences.
Cherie Burns's vivid account of a 1938 hurricane demonstrates that all too painfully. Whether this storm is now "largely forgotten," as she argues, is at least debatable, but of its severity and its lasting effect there can be no question. It was one of the fiercest storms ever to hit the United States. Striking on Sept. 21, the exact moment of the autumnal equinox when tides were at their highest, it "became what meteorologists now know is an extratropical cyclone, one that intensifies and enlarges as its warm center decays, cools, and elongates." A fishing captain turned back to land when the barometer fell nearly to 29 inches, but "the Weather Bureau issued mild warnings, and the major regional newspapers in the Northeast forecast only, 'Rain, heavy at times.' " The storm struck from out of the blue:
"That low barometer, none of the fishermen knew at the time, signaled the approach of a frighteningly powerful hurricane . . . at the unheard-of speed of 67 miles per hour. Its center was surrounded by tightly wrapped winds reaching 156 miles per hour. It was pushing a storm surge . . . that would raise coastal water levels as much as forty feet. About two hundred miles across, it would sweep north across Long Island, then Long Island Sound, and then smash into the coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island, devastating blue-blood resorts and blue-collar mill communities with equal vengeance."
Today's reader will have difficulty comprehending the utter lack of preparedness with which Long Island and New England greeted the hurricane. We are accustomed now to storm tracking that begins far out in the Atlantic and relentlessly pinpoints every move as a depression becomes a tropical storm and then a hurricane. We know when to board up the windows and when to get out of town. In 1938, though, "there was no Weather Channel, no TV reporters in shiny new foul weather gear standing on beaches shouting warnings over the buffeting gusts. There were no evacuations ordered, no advisories to batten down the hatches and roll up the rugs. The element of surprise was as deadly for coastal New England as the strength of the storm itself."
Many survivors of the hurricane -- now in their eighties and nineties but with memories that seem as clear as they were nearly seven decades ago -- spoke to Burns about their experiences. She has also drawn upon a substantial literature of the hurricane, much of it produced by local historical societies. All the stories are arresting -- none more so than that of George and Mabel Burghard, in their house in Westhampton, Long Island. At 3:30 in the afternoon, Coast Guard official John Avery warned them to leave their cottage, but by the time they did so, the water and wind were so high that the whole place was literally being torn apart. When a neighbor's bathhouse broke up, they made a raft out of it:
"It was terrifying to wait, wondering if that incoming wave would crush or carry them along. By this time, fuel tanks, planks, and a limitless list of debris nearly covered the surface of the water. Doors and boards flew above their heads in a tempest that had begun to feel like the apocalypse. They could not see another person. Rescue was out of the question. It was as though they were the last people on earth, washing to an unknown future. . . . Halves of houses roared by, roofs rushed by like motorboats. Cars floated in the surf until the wind got behind them and threw them up in the air like breaching whales."
Miraculously, they washed ashore at the Westhampton golf course. As they trudged toward high land, they passed a woman who was "hysterical and spoke nonsensically," another who "came out of a house and looked right through them, which was the moment they realized that the whole community had suffered a disaster of such magnitude that their own narrow escape was just one of many horror stories." Yet matters only got worse as the storm left Long Island, crossed the sound and hit Connecticut and Rhode Island. The latter, "forty miles wide and fifty miles long with its center hollowed out by Narragansett Bay and a collage of small islands, sat directly in the hurricane's path."
The "hurricane's surge was a juggernaut by the time it hit Narragansett Bay, taking beaches, homes, lighthouses, boats, bathing pavilions, and in some cases lives with it." It rolled right up the bay and into downtown Providence, "where the square miles of surface water driven up by the wind from the bay's opening were funneled into a channel less than a mile wide." As the waters rose, "workers looked down from upper-floor offices onto a scene more like Venice than New England." Soon enough, "looters came swimming, holding flashlights out of the water over their heads. . . . It was the opportunity so many had waited for, to finally have some of what they had been missing through those long Depression years."
As the hurricane moved inland, it quickly lost strength, but its effects were felt throughout the region. Whole communities disappeared, especially in Rhode Island; at Napatree Point, "all of the thirty-nine houses that were standing on the morning of the hurricane had been washed away." In the beautiful old town of Westerly, 200 people died, and 240 died in the state as a whole. At Sakonnet, of 23 waterfront buildings, "only one lone support post was left standing when the sun rose the morning after the hurricane."
The region's trees and forests were decimated: "By one estimate, 275 million trees, some of them the pride of their New England towns, were down. The Forest Service estimated that the timber from fallen trees was enough to build 200,000 five-room houses." One farm lost 200 trees, which were cut up for firewood: "The supply would last until 1980, when [a] grandson burned the last bundle."
In New England, if in few other places, the storm is still remembered. I heard stories about it in Rhode Island as a boy, and, Burns writes, "it would never be forgotten as the time when the public in New England came to understand that large events, bad things beyond their making, could strike even on their doorstep." Her own very good book is sure to help keep the terrible storm in its proper place in New England's memory, as well as being timely reading in this period of unusually heavy and frequent hurricane activity.