The ’38 Hurricane

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They came, neck deep, or swimming, holding flashlights dry above them, rising out of the water and disappearing through the demolished store windows. At first there were few, then there were hordes, assisting each other. They seemed organized, almost regimented, as if they’d daily drilled and prepared for this event, the like of which hadn’t happened in a hundred and twenty years. They were brazen and insatiable; they swarmed like rats; they took everything. When a few policemen came past in a rowboat, they didn’t stop their looting. They knew they outnumbered the police.

De Jong’s arithmetic was accurate: the last big hurricane had hit New England in 1815, and even though it had swept from New York to Boston, taking lives along the same Connecticut and Rhode Island shore lines (and flooding Providence), it was long since forgotten in 1938. There had been other storms, too, in the intervening years, notably a hurricane in September of 1821, after which a Connecticut travelling salesman, William Redfield, became the first man to determine the whirlwind nature of hurricanes: near his home in Middleton he saw storm-felled trees with their tops facing northwest; farther west, in Litchfield County, trees had been felled southward. A number of dying hurricanes had touched New Jersey, New York, and New England early in the twentieth century, but to no remarkable effect.

With such a relative paucity of sizable hurricanes, thrifty New Englanders had been reluctant to take insurance againts such storms. The National Board of Fire Underwriters estimated that more than nine-five percent of the storm’s damage was uninsured.

On the sunny day after the hurricane, many parts of the stricken area were able to communicate with the rest of the United States only via short-wave radio. With telephone, electric power, and railroad lines out, and with highways blocked, there was a virtual news black-out. (The New York Times that morning, like most papers outside of New England, was quite unaware of the widespread destruction; it gave its biggest front-page play to the worsening situation in Nazi-threatened Czechoslovakia.) Wires seeking information about missing persons were sent from New York to eastern New England via Paris and London, being transmitted thence to receiving stations on Cape Cod, which had been comparatively undamaged.

The hurricane of ’38 forced thousands of people in the Northeast to fly for the first time. Air travel between New York and Boston, then in its adolescence, was handled by American Airlines; ordinarily the daily passenger total was about 200, but 1,000 people flew the Boston-New York lanes the day after the storm, and during the next week, with railroads and highways still out, American had to call in planes from United, T.W.A., and Eastern to handle the rush. Meanwhile Postmaster General James A. Parley had pressed into service the battleship Wyoming to carry the mail between the two ports.

On the countryside and in the minds and hearts of the New Englanders it touched, the hurricane of ’38 left wounds that have yet to heal—incredible in light of the brevity of its actual presence in their midst. In Long Island, for instance, the two bad blows with the lull between took only about two hours to come and go, not counting the strong winds that came before and after the storm proper.

Ernest Clowes, the Bridgehampton newspaperman, later published a book, The Hurricane of 1938 on Eastern Long Island . In it he wrote:

By 5:30 the hurricane was over. It was still blowing a strong gale, but the clouds were thinning and breaking, the rain was only a fitful drizzle that kept on at intervals until about seven. People began appearing on the streets and towards six o’clock groups of school-children with linked arms and bright eager faces were seen battling their way home against the wind. It was a changed scene, a new landscape, for where that morning great avenues of trees had stood in the full leaf of summer there were great gaps in the sky, and all the trees that stood were as stripped and as barren as November.