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.
(Page 2 of 2)
It was very similar to Sandy because it came during a full moon and high tide. When the surge came, there were people drowning in the streets going home from work in Providence, Rhode Island.Skip to next paragraph
Pastor reportedly buys his way onto New York Times bestseller list
'Paddington' movie trailer glimpses at children's book series bear
Goldman Sachs elevator tweeter loses book deal
Characters struggle for sleep in new literary works
Anne Rice and others sign petition urging Amazon to get rid of anonymous comments
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Reporters looked out windows at people hanging onto storefronts or riding a log that had been a tie in a parking lot and drowning.
The cars in the water would short out: the horns would be blaring underwater, the lights would come on.
Q: Which areas were hit hardest?
A: It went aground in Long Island, right across the Long Island Sound and into Narragansett Bay.
On Napatree Point, on the ocean in Rhode Island near the Connecticut border, 39 houses were there when the hurricane hit. At the end of the day, they were all gone. That's an incredible thing.
There are dramatic stories like the one of a family that went upstairs to escape the water and end up floating on a rooftop like something like Robinson Crusoe, assuming they're going out to sea to drown. They were saying their rosaries and their prayers, but they survived.
Q: What struck you on a personal level?
A: Even though I looked at the force and power of the storm, it was listening to people tell the tales of what they can withstand, what they weathered, what they did.
There are stories of people who risk their lives to go out and rescue a nanny and a baby that are on the beach or the shore.
The other thing is how people remember it. I was interviewing people who were in their early teens or younger, and talking to them 60 years later, they never forget. They remember the sound and the extreme and the horror.
It's also surprising how few people could swim. Swimming wasn't something that was taught to everybody. A water threat was really serious.
Q: What did this teach you about resilience?
Today, there's therapy after disasters and therapies. But these were New Englanders, they really didn't have a lot of that. They pulled up their socks and went on. People moved on with their lives.
They didn't have the national support, either. This was very specific to a region. Because Hitler went into Czechoslovakia a few days after the storm, the national interest went away from the storm.
Q: What happened next?
A: It was right at the cusp of a new era in terms of storm watching and storm measuring.
People did not build houses, I don't believe, as close to the shore as they had before. They never a rebuilt a road that had beautiful homes on Napatree Point on the coastline of Rhode Island near the Connecticut border.
We sailed out there with sailors while I was writing my book. My husband told them that there were 39 houses there. They looked at him like, you've got to be kidding.
The beauty of the coastline makes for gentle harbors and little places for sailboats and fun. But people built on ribbon barrier beaches, so when a storm comes, the houses are pinned, and you have to get on a road to get on a bridge to cross a pond.
When the hurricane came and the bridges washed out, those people in those houses were trapped with water in front of them and water behind. This was a dramatic and tragic business.
At the end of the day, 39 homes, mostly summer homes, were gone. Before, people were out there with nannies and children and boats.
In a storm, the decision to leave is critical. If you delay or go back for your pocketbook or dog, and that happened here, it was often too late, and they couldn't get out.
The lesson is to pay attention to where you build and when you leave.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.