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Hurricane Sandy's predecessor, the Great Hurricane of 1938: What can we learn from it?

Historian Cherie Burns discusses the 1938 natural disaster that shocked New England.

By Randy Dotinga / October 30, 2012

Water hits a seawall in New York City during the Great Hurricane of 1938.

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Back in the 1930s, many New Englanders liked to say that hurricanes never hit their part of the country. They discovered their assumptions were incorrect on a Wednesday afternoon in September 1938.

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The Great Hurricane of 1938 slammed into Long Island and Rhode Island, killing 564 in southern New England. Thousands of buildings and boats were destroyed.

Historian Cherie Burns wrote about the disaster in her 2005 book "The Great Hurricane: 1938." Publishers Weekly raved, "From start to finish, this powerful story of nature's fury and human survival pulls the reader in and doesn't let go."

I reached Burns at her home in Taos, N.M., this week and asked her about the state of weather prediction back then, the human stories of the catastrophe and the lessons of the hurricane for today.
 
 Q: What's the biggest difference between the 1938 hurricane and Hurricane Sandy?
 
 A: I was marveling over how everything has been forecast about Sandy over the last five days. The reason the hurricane of 1938 was so devastating was that it took people completely by surprise.

People certainly knew about hurricanes and understood them. New Englanders told each other, parents told their children, that hurricanes didn't come to New England. And the weather bureau didn't forecast it correctly.

It took everyone completely by surprise, even on the day it came ashore. People were having picnics on the beach, since New Englanders thought it was fun to go down there and look at these storms.

There was this incredible sense of deception. It lurked offshore, they couldn't see it, and suddenly it went up Narragansett Bay.
 
 Q: What about people warning others when it finally hit?
 
 A: The storm knocked out the communications, so people couldn't call ahead and say, "Watch out, it's coming your way." It's almost unbelievable to us today when we have the Weather Channel and satellites.
 
 Q: Were there any people who actually saw it coming?
 
When the storm did not go into Jacksonville, Florida, and was offshore, it was assumed that it was not going to make landfall and would go out sea. There was a young man who sat down with his protractor and said, "It's going to hit land, and this is where it's going." Everybody thought he was feathering his career.

This forecaster understood what the conditions were, that a sort of red carpet had been laid out for the hurricane. He saw that, but no one would listen to him.
 
Q: What about others who saw this coming?
 
A: The best forecast of the severity and its threat came from an ocean liner that was out to sea. The captain was registering the barometric low. Even though he sent the messages, they went out on the telegraph in Morse code. By the time they were read by the weather service,  the storm had picked up speed, and it was too late.

You also had the "old weather eyes" in the fishing community. They timed the waves coming in, and some were saying, "This is big, this is coming."
 
Q: What about the storm was most destructive?

A: The storm surge.

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