What we saw was what we got
“Taken By Storm — 1938” is the detailed account of the hurricane that devastated much of New England in 1938. The
author, Lourdes B. Aviles, remembered growing up in Puerto Rico as a young girl extremely interested in hurricanes, which were quite frequent. Now, she is professor of meteorology at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, a state that was particularly stricken by that particular storm.
The author says the word hurricane is derived from a Spanish word, “huracán,” which, in turn, was a phonetic spelling of a word the West Indian tribes had for the deity that brought terrible storms to their islands. Their word for that deity was “Jurakan,” which the author says is pronounced “hoo-rah-kahn.”
As you might guess from the author’s professorship, her book is not only an account of that storm’s effects, but also of the condition of the official weather forecasting system in those years.
In the first place, the forecasting personnel were in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was only in later years that they were transferred to the Commerce Department. Information for farmers had been one of their principal tasks, but, by 1938, the airline industry had become very interested in what sort of weather their planes would be flying in. Instrument flying was in its infancy, and pilots had to operate a lot by sight alone.
There was no such thing as satellite observation, and weather conditions at sea had to come largely from what was reported from ships in any particular neighborhood.
While Weather Service headquarters were in Washington, where part of the Atlantic seaboard was monitored, there were subordinate offices in Jacksonville, Fla., and in Puerto Rico.
The general reader of this book would be advised not to shudder at the occasional scientific references that are of interest to meteorology students mostly. For instance, this footnote:
“One hectopascal equals 100 pascals. A pascal is the international unit of pressure, equal to a Newton per square meter or a kilogram per meter second squared.”
In 1938, when the Weather Service spoke of a tropical storm, it often meant a storm that had originated in the tropics. In mid-September 1938, Jacksonville reported such a storm out in the Atlantic headed in a northwest direction, which meant it was headed toward Florida. People in that state had experience with hurricanes and began to think of boarding up their facilities. But much to their relief, it swung north. The author says it achieved a northward speed of 50 mph, which is pretty fast for such a disturbance.
The Washington office thought the storm would follow the customary path of veering eastward before landfall. But during that season, the Bermuda high to the east was especially strong, and a special low-pressure system over the Alleghenies tended to attract the storm in a northward direction. So on Sept. 21, it slammed into Long Island, crossed Long Island Sound and punched into Connecticut, continuing through central Massachusetts and into New Hampshire and Vermont.
The author makes clear that one reason for the extensive flooding was not so much because of the rain the hurricane brought as that the ground had already been soaked by a summer of extensive rainfall. She likens it to what happened more recently with Tropical Storm Irene.
Trees were flattened, including several hundred thousand maples. There was an extensive forest of white pines west of Keene, N.H., that was completely flattened.
My family had a farm in Londonderry in the northwest corner of Windham County. Because that area was on the west side of the counter-clockwise hurricane motion, the wind came out of the northeast. It blew hard with occasional stronger gusts, one of which blew over an apple tree in our yard, moved our woodshed back 4 feet and left a trail of downed timber in the woods in back of the house.
While working outside to save the barn and other buildings, my mother exclaimed that she could taste sea salt in the rain. And when things cleared in a day or two, the east windows of the Vermont State House in Montpelier were found to be plastered with sea salt.
Of course, power and phone service were completely out. Our farm was heated by two woodstoves, one in the kitchen on which my mother also cooked and the other in the living room. So, in that respect, we were better off than many, but it was a long time before electricity and phone service came back.
The Weather Service took criticism afterward for not warning more strongly about the storm. The author of this book does a good job of explaining why it wasn’t carelessness that was at fault, but lack of equipment to assess developments.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.