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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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