The Hurricane of 1938  --  09/21/05

Sixty-seven years ago today, the Great Hurricane of 1938 struck New England.

It had been headed out into the Atlantic, away from land. Nobody expected it to hit land, but it turned and headed toward New England at speeds reported to be fifty miles an hour. It struck land just about at the time of high tide and brought significant storm surges on top of that, with storm surges of 14 to 18 feet along much of the Connecticut shore and 18 to 25 feet from New London to Cape Cod. The storm surge rushed into Narragansett Bay and Providence was hit by a storm surge of almost twenty feet. (I've seen markers on buildings in Providence showing the level the water reached -- it almost seems unreal.) Providence recorded sustained winds of 100 mph with gusts of 125 mph; an observatory in Massachusetts recorded sustained winds of 121 mph and a gust that reached 186 mph.

Hundreds of people lost their lives; the combined figures for Long Island (NY) and the New England states totals almost 700. Here in Rhode Island the death toll included a school bus filled with children on their way home from school, swept off the road by the storm surge. Almost nine thousand homes, cottages, farm houses, and commercial buildings were destroyed and more than fifteen thousand were damaged. (In addition, more than 2600 boats were destroyed and more than 3300 were damaged.)

In 1938 the storm hit without warning. Today we have satellites, storm-tracking radar, computer projections, and radio and television weather coverage. However, there are thousands and thousands of homes in the areas that had been devastated by the 1938 storm. Where once there were a few dozen simple cottages, today you may find hundreds of homes, many priced in the million dollar range.

There have been other storms of equivalent power that have struck New England. In late August of 1635 -- just fifteen years after the settlement at Plymouth -- a powerful hurricane (the Great Coastal Gale) struck the coast. September 23, 1815 brought the Great September Gale of 1815, making landfall just sixteen miles away from where the Great Hurricane of 1938 would strike. September 8, 1869, a "compact, but intense" hurricane struck just to the west of Narragansett Bay.

Modern times have seen Hurricane Carol in 1954, Diane in 1955, Donna in 1960, Gloria in 1985 and Bob in 1991.

I was here for Hurricane Bob. We had attended my high school reunion (where someone sitting at our table had commented that he had talked with his son by phone about damage to their summer cottage in South Carolina -- I hadn't even realized that a hurricane had been in the news at all -- probably due to Jill being 9 yrs old and Jeremy 6 yrs old and preparing for our trip, etc.) and then the next day we set off for Rhode Island to visit Nancy's family. I had noticed that traffic seemed very heavy, all headed in the opposite direction. When we reached their house my father-in-law told me we were just in time, Hurricane Bob would hit in a few more hours. Electricity failed when the storm hit. The storm did no damage to their home (although the winds brought down a large tree that just missed hitting the house) but there was no electricity (and, without the electric pump, no water). We cooked using the outdoor grill, using up the food from the refrigerator and freezer. Drank water from bottles that had been filled ahead of time. Used water from the bathtubs (also filled ahead of the storm) to flush the toilets. After three days Nancy and I drove a couple of towns away, to where power had been restored and brought back coffee and donuts. The next day we packed up and headed back to upstate New York -- about thirty miles into Connecticut we stopped at a MacDonald's and enjoyed the luxury of fast food and running water. Nancy's mom and dad and grandmother headed off to an area with power and stayed at a motel -- enjoying hot showers -- for a couple more days until power was restored in their area.

One of these years another powerful hurricane will hit the New England Coast, one like the Great Coastal Gale of 1635 or the Great September Gale of 1815 or the Great Hurricane of 1938. There should be enough warning for people to escape, but there will be thousands upon thousands of homes washed away, most of them built in areas where they should never have been built.

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