• A wind-blown gull
    March 26,2014
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    One incident in the hurricane of 1938 that devastated much of New England was the appearance next day of an ocean seabird on our family farm in Londonderry, which is far from the ocean in the northwest corner of Vermont’s Windham County.

    Whether it was worn out from its long passage from the beaches, or whether it had been friendly with humans in its native habitat, it did not act frightened and attempt to move away when my father approached it in the hillside pasture in back of our farmhouse. It sat still and calmly let my father pick it up and carry it toward our house.

    The bird had webbed feet and was about the size of a duck, but it was not a seagull. It had a long and narrow straight beak that took a sudden sharp turn downward at its very end.

    My father put it on our lawn, but it couldn’t rise into the air from the ground. My father said some seabirds need to be in the water before they can paddle enough to gain sufficient propulsion to allow their wings to take over. So he took it down to the nearby West River, where a millpond was located. The bird paddled for a short time, and then made an effort with its feet and wings and managed to get airborne. It took off over the trees and headed eastward out of sight.

    I hope it made it back to its beach, but the path of that particular storm meant that the bird could have been picked up on a beach in Connecticut and carried in the swirling counterclockwise-moving winds clear to Vermont.

    The author of a book printed last year on the hurricane of 1938, Lourdes B. Aviles, a professor of meteorology at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, collected a massive amount of statistics and facts relating to the storm.

    For instance, in discussing estimates of the number of trees blown down by the winds, she says many of the estimates were in board feet. But the term “board feet,” she said, is used for that part of a tree which can be used for lumber. It does not count branches and roots, so the amount of wood that actually came down in the Sept. 21-23 storm was considerably more than what is listed.

    In order to avoid having to repeat the year every time she spoke of the 1938 hurricane, Ms. Aviles spelled the word “hurricane” with a capital H every time, even when the word appears in mid-sentence. When you realize that, it makes the narrative much more lucid.

    She also does a good job describing the work of others who determined that New England was hit by similar big storms in the past. There was one in 1635 and another in 1815, each having an intensity similar to the ’38 storm.

    All struck the eastern section of Long Island, crossed Long Island Sound and slammed into the mainland. The 1635 storm curved across Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts, returning to the sea at about the level of Boston. Puritan settlers in Boston and the Pilgrim fathers in Plymouth both took note of that storm.

    The 1815 storm went northeastward through New Hampshire and Maine, after going through Connecticut and Massachusetts. The 1938 storm went more directly northward through New Hampshire and Vermont, and on into Canada.

    The weather experts can have a sense of humor. Ms. Aviles tells about work to tell a hurricane’s intensity by an expert in the National Hurricane Center. It was a compilation of “Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes.” The acronym of that title is, of course, SLOSH. Very appropriate.

    Her book doesn’t mention it, but the later custom of giving women’s names to storms (and subsequently, male names, as well) came from a novel published in 1941 entitled “Storm” by a San Francisco professor named George R. Stewart. A fictional meteorologist in the San Francisco Weather Bureau gives women’s names to storms that come off the Pacific.

    The method of compiling information described in the novel is very similar to the methods described in the book on the ’38 hurricane. The novel seems to have given someone in the Weather Bureau the idea after World War II for giving names to storms.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.
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