Friday, September 30, 2011

The Great Hurricane(s)

New England is still recovering from the effects of the severe weather this spring and summer. Preservation Massachusetts' new list of most endangered historic resources will focus on tornado-damaged communities here in the western part of the Commonwealth. The state of Vermont has had to launch a campaign—including television and YouTube appearances by the Commissioner of Tourism—to demonstrate to fall foliage tourists that, despite Hurricane Irene, Vermont is indeed open for business (more: 1, 2). 

As we all know, however, the region has been through far worse.

September 21 marks the anniversary of the "Great Hurricane of '38," that is, 1938. The first major tropical cyclone to strike New England since 1869, and the most devastating in our history (with the only possible exception of one in the seventeenth century), it has gone by various names: "The New England Hurricane of 1938 (or Great New England Hurricane or Yankee Clipper or Long Island Express or simply The Great Hurricane of 1938)."

As MassMoments tells us:
in 1938, a hurricane of astonishing force ravaged New England. Having gone to bed the night before to radio forecasts of scattered rain and fresh southerly winds, New Englanders woke on the 21st and went about their weekday routines. At least they did until the storm broke in mid-afternoon. Within minutes, the hurricane leveled virtually everything in its path. The whirling, shrieking winds and rushing waters took more than 600 lives and caused damage estimated between $6-12 billion in today's dollars. Technology now provides enough warning to evacuate vulnerable areas, so a storm of similar magnitude might take fewer lives today. But the pace of development along the coast means that property and environmental damage would undoubtedly be many times greater. (read the rest
The hurricane is famous in Amherst, too, for it struck far inland. Amherst College students of the day whom I happened to teach in an Elderhostel course some years ago told me of the devastation, above all, to the large and stately trees that used to grace the town. Indeed, total damage to trees and utility poles alone was said to have exceeded a million dollars (in the valuation of the day).

the New York Daily Mirror covers the hurricane in New England
 The Amherst Record noted, though, that the disaster united the usually contentious town residents:
The spirit of the people has been an inspiration. Nature's catastrophes bring us close together in friendliness and neighborliness, and we are much the gainers because of it. Many a person during the past two weeks has had the pleasure of doing a neighborly act to people who had never before been in need, and many another has had his heart warmed because of some unexpected kindness rendered.
(Essays on Amherst History, [Amherst, 1978], 204)
Perhaps because the main damage was only to the landscape, the Amherst high school sports teams decided to name themselves the "'Hurricanes." It always seemed doubly strange: first, because the incident was so atypical (my wife grew up in Florida where it seemed far less anomalous for her high school teams to bear the same name), and second, because, although a hurricane clearly symbolizes power, it is also a destructive and potentially lethal force. I very much doubt that sports teams in Japan are rushing to name themselves "The Tsunamis."

Perhaps because this hurricane has become so famous, most of us have no knowledge of the 1954 "Hurricane Carol," whose anniversary fell in August.  "Carol" was of roughly the same power as the Hurricane of '38 when it hit our region, and the storm surge in Narragansett Bay was actually larger. It killed 65 people and destroyed some 4000 houses. Winds of 80-100 miles per hour knocked out power in the eastern part of Massachusetts and destroyed the steeple of Boston's historic North Church, made famous by Paul Revere's ride. Interestingly, that steeple, by famed architect Charles Bulfinch, was itself a replacement for the original, destroyed by another storm 150 years before Carol. Today's steeple, combining elements of both, is thus the third to grace the building.

As even Irene begins to fades in our memories and we go about our routines in calm and safety, it's easy to forget the havoc that Carol wreaked on the region.


The Hurricane of '38 as documented in the collections of Amherst College

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