On September 21, 1938, almost exactly 80 years ago, a storm of biblical proportions slammed into the northeastern coast of the United States from South Jersey to Boston creating the worst natural disaster in American history. It became known as the Great Hurricane of ‘38. The storm was so powerful that it surpassed the San Francisco Earthquake and the Great Chicago Fire in terms of death and destruction. No one was prepared for the storm’s fury.
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It raced up from Cape Hatteras at 60 miles per hour building up a tremendous storm surge of tidal wave dimensions destroying whole communities. The storm reached far inland causing catastrophic damage to Providence, Hartford, Boston and Springfield, even as far inland as New Hampshire winds gusted to 175 miles per hour. It obliterated 275 million trees destroying picture postcard scenes of New England, as old as the pilgrims.
The Hurricane of ‘38 killed an estimated 800 people with more than 100 in Westerly and Charlestown. The storm remains the most powerful, costliest, and deadliest hurricane in New England history. One survivor told Everett S. Allen, author of A Wind to Shake the World; “That was when I stopped believing in God.”
The phrase, 100-year storm, comes up when referring to the Great Hurricane of 1938 but according to the National Weather Service the incidence of major hurricanes striking the northeast is more frequent than that. The weather service is concerned that many people who have experienced smaller hurricanes in New England such as Hurricane Bob in 1991, Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and Super Storm Sandy in 2012 think they know how to handle the next big one. That perception is warped according to Glenn Field, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Last summer, the Watch Hill Conservancy invited Mr. Field to give a presentation to help people realize what a real hurricane capable of. The large turnout for the presentation indicated people in this area are concerned, as well they should be. The last major hurricane to hit our area was Hurricane Carol in 1954. That’s 64 years ago but the average time span between major hurricanes in our area is not 100 years but 33 years. That means we are way overdue for another big one.
The strength of a hurricane is measured on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. The scale uses categories numbered one to five based on a hurricane’s sustained wind speed, five being the highest. Hurricanes reaching category three with winds from 111 to 129 miles per hour are considered major hurricanes because of their potential for significant loss of life and damage. The Hurricane of ‘38 was a strong category three and had a sustained wind speed of 121 miles per hour with gusts up to 181.
By 1954 when Hurricane Carol struck many of the cottages destroyed in Misquamicut in 1938 had been rebuilt for the third time. Carol, although not as powerful a storm as the Hurricane of 38 was still a category three. It h14-foot foot storm surge and destroyed over two hundred cottages in Misquamicut. The Governor of Rhode Island, Dennis Roberts, condemned a half mile long section of beach to create the Misquamicut State Beach.
Rhode Island had a near miss in October 2012 when Super Storm Sandy took a hard left toward New Jersey just before reaching us. Even so, Sandy pushed four feet of sand over Atlantic Avenue and damaged many homes and businesses. Sandy was only as strong as a category four hurricane when she came ashore with a five-foot storm surge. So imagine, the Hurricane of ’38 which had a 20-foot storm surge and 30-foot waves on top of that.
There is little dissension among experts that a storm of the likes of the ’38 Hurricane can and will strike again. The damage and loss of life could be worse because today’s advancements in forecasting can make people complacent to the threat. There has also been significant development along the coast in the last 64 years. Nicholas K. Coch, a coastal geologist specializing in hurricanes and a foremost expert stated: “There is absolutely no question that we’ll get a recurrence of a storm of that magnitude in the Northeast.”
During his presentation, Mr. Field made a few suggestions on how to prepare for a major hurricane. When a storm is forecast you start preparing when the storm is in the Bahamas because by the time it’s off the Carolina coast it’s as little as eight hours away. If you’re in an area susceptible to flooding, evacuate well before the storm arrives. Once the storm arrives, shelter in place in the lowest interior room of the building.
The day after a major hurricane makes landfall, 97 percent of essential services such as fire, police, and hospitals will be not be working. Electric power will probably be knocked out for a month or more. Many roads will be blocked by downed trees and the National Guard can restrict access to effected coastal areas making travel difficult. Bottom line is, if you decided to ride it out you may regret it.
Summing it up Mr. Field stated, “People of my generation who remember Gloria in 1985 and Bob in 1991 think those were real hurricanes, that sense of reality is warped. It doesn’t matter how many hurricanes are predicted in a year. In 1938 only one major hurricane was predicted to strike the United States. It only takes one.”