The Great Hurricane of 1938

While weather reports are focused on the latest hurricane churning around off the US coast and where it may be headed next, it’s worth taking a look at an earlier storm that hit New England back in September of 1938. Back in those days, hurricanes were not named but the intensity of the storm and its devastating effect on an area not accustomed to hurricanes earned it such nick-names as The Great New England Hurricane or the Long Island Express.

The storm formed as most hurricanes do off the coast of Africa and made its way across the Atlantic, tracked by ships since at this time there were no weather satellites or radar to monitor it. It strengthened to a category five though by the time it reached the Virginia coast it had weakened to a category 3. Most forecasters predicted it would curve out to sea though a lone researcher forecasted it would stay on a northerly course.

Regrettably he was overruled by more senior meteorologists and as a result no warning went out to the East Coast. Squeezed between two weather systems, the storm shot like a bullet northwards, reaching nearly 70 miles per hour on its forward motion, the highest forward velocity ever recorded in the annals of hurricanes. Since this kept it from losing its strength when it passed over the cooler waters around New England, it hit as a category 3 when it made landfall on Long Island.

With no warning and no time to prepare, locals were caught by surprise and the effects were devastating. Photos can only capture a fraction of the destruction that occurred and left such a long lasting impression on New Englanders.

One of these New Englanders was my mother. She was living in Concord New Hampshire with her family at the time and had just turned eighteen the month before. To her, the high winds were what frightened her the most. Afterwards she described visiting the park and seeing the huge pine trees there with their tops snapped off and scattered on the ground. She told me that she and one of her brothers made their way from one side of the park to the other by walking on top of the fallen trunks, jumping about from one tree to the next, not daring to get down on the ground as the trees had been so big that she didn’t think they would be able to climb back up onto them. Since my mother was about five feet tall, that gives you an idea of how big the trees had been before they were toppled. She found it heartbreaking to see so many beautiful old trees destroyed.

The fear caused by the storm stayed with her for many years afterward. I can recall as a child seeing her anxiety whenever weather reports indicated a hurricane might be coming up the coast. She got a map from the National Hurricane Center which allowed her to closely track the course of any storm that formed in the Atlantic. She bought hurricane lamps and candles as a precaution against long power outages and fretted about the trees growing up around our house.

One of her cousins lived with her retired husband George in Sarasota Florida. George had been a weatherman and whenever a storm drew near to the coast of the eastern US, my mother would call them up wanting to speak with George. Apparently she considered him a far better authority on what to expect than the weatherman on TV. George would reassure her about the storm’s track and occasionally take the opportunity to complain about the new-fangled custom of giving names to tropical storms as well as hurricanes, which he thought was a waste of names.

With the sophisticated weather satellites and Doppler radar to track weather movements, we are far better off than in my mother’s youth in detecting the approach of threatening weather, though when it actually strikes, we are still just as helpless. At least we can flee or take shelter, or stock up on goods in case of shortages, knowing what’s on the way.

What’s more open to question is whether any of this hi-tech can be maintained as resources in the future become more constrained due to economic contraction and equipment harder to replace as a result. A significant Carrington Event would fry satellites and knock out power systems here on earth, leaving us blind to developing weather systems which could threaten us. Replacing all this expensive gear is apt to be difficult. We may have to get used to relying more on the reports from ships for sea storms and ham radio operators for information about approaching storms and their severity than on the high maintenance high tech we have become so accustomed to over the past few decades. This is certainly going to be a tough pill to swallow for many who are enamored of the concept of eternal progress. But it’s just simply doesn’t make sense to pour money into extravagant systems that break down if you look at them cross-eyed, when less complex, more maintainable methods will do.

As the post-oil world bears down on us, it’s worth our time to sit down and decide what’s sustainable and what isn’t. When we finally learn to make do with less, we may be surprised to find that it is not the same as doing without.