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Week of 28 February 2003· Vol. VI, No. 23

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Hurricane of ’38: New England’s worst weather disaster

By Brian Fitzgerald

Mother Nature delivers a nasty uppercut: a fiercely powerful and windy storm moves up the coast and paralyzes New England, and a massive cleanup effort follows. And everyone remembers where they were the day the violent weather descended on the region.

Heavy surf breaks over Quadrangular dock in Woods Hole, Mass., during the Hurricane of 1938. The biggest storm of the century killed 99 in the state and a total of more than 600 in New England. Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library
  Heavy surf breaks over Quadrangular dock in Woods Hole, Mass., during the Hurricane of 1938. The biggest storm of the century killed 99 in the state and a total of more than 600 in New England. Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library

Sound familiar? Boston was blanketed in 27.5 inches of snow on February 17 and 18. Nonetheless, when William Minsinger recently delivered a lecture on a devastating example of extreme weather, he wasn’t talking about the Presidents’ Day snowstorm of ’03, or commemorating the Blizzard of ’78.

Those storms, in fact, were relatively mild meteorological events compared to the Hurricane of 1938, which claimed more than 600 lives in New England, according to Minsinger (MED’78), author of 1938 Hurricane: A Historical and Pictorial Summary (Blue Hill Observatory Press, 1988) when he spoke about the worst storm of the century at the Old South Meeting House in downtown Boston.

When they woke up on September 21, 1938, New England residents were totally unprepared for the chaos that would begin in the afternoon. “Although it was getting cloudy that morning, and there was a forecast for gusty conditions, few people thought anything about the storm,” explained Minsinger. “The area hadn’t had a severe hurricane for years. The last major hurricane was in 1815, so no one thought much of it at first.”

Indeed, when the rain and wind swept into the Boston area, most people didn’t even realize that a hurricane was upon them. In 1938, there were no weather satellites, no weather radar, no offshore weather buoys -- and no real warning of what was to come on a day that began as warm and calm. The U.S. Weather Bureau, now called the National Weather Service, tracked the storm as it moved west toward the Bahamas Islands, but believed that it would curve out to sea before reaching the U.S. northeast. “It wasn’t a completely missed forecast,” said Minsinger, “but no one was predicting that the storm was going to cross New England.”

Instead of moving out to sea, the storm headed due north and accelerated. “The forward speed of the Hurricane of ’38 was incredible -- 60 to 70 mph -- the fastest forward speed in the history of hurricanes,” said Minsinger. It took just eight hours for the storm to travel from off the coast of Cape Hatteras to New England. It pounded Long Island with waves of between 30 and 50 feet, sweeping entire homes and families into the ocean, and hit Rhode Island at 5:30 p.m., killing 380 people in the state and flooding Providence in 13 feet of water. “People were drowning in Providence just as the forecast was changing,” Minsinger said.

The Hurricane of 1938 killed 99 people in Massachusetts, toppling 1,400 trees in four hours at Jamaica Plain’s Arnold Arboretum, and unleashing wind gusts of up to 183 mph at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton -- the second highest wind speed ever recorded.

Minsinger, an orthopedic surgeon and amateur meteorologist, is president of the nonprofit Blue Hill Observatory. What made him so interested in this benchmark example of bad weather? After all, at 52, he wasn’t around during the Long Island Express, another moniker for the hurricane with no name. But Minsinger had heard stories about the hurricane all his life, he explained, and he lived in Milton when two storms managed to imprint themselves on his memory: Hurricane Carol in 1954, when he was four, and Hurricane Diane, the following year.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the weather,” he said, “and the Hurricane of 1938 is the biggest storm to ever hit the area.” With more than 9,000 homes destroyed and more than 3,000 ships sunk or wrecked, “it is the major weather event that all others are measured against.”

Talks at the Old South Meeting House, at 310 Washington St., a nonprofit museum and historic site, are sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the National Park Service, and other public and private sources. On May 14, at 6:30 p.m., Boston city archaeologist Ellen Berkland (GRS’89) will present a slide lecture on archaeological projects on Rainsford Island and other Boston Harbor islands. For more information, call 617-482-6439, or visit www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org.

Little warning for the “Long Island Express”

On Wednesday afternoon, September 21, 1938, the Braintree High School football team’s quarterback was having a hard time completing passes during practice. High winds took the ball everywhere but the receivers’ hands.

“The punts weren’t going in the direction we wanted them to,” says player Malcolm Walker, now 81. “Sometimes they’d go backward.”
Walker, one of several people asked to share their recollections of the Hurricane of ’38, couldn’t believe that his coach wasn’t canceling practice. “Being the stubborn man that he was, he would not relent,” Walker says. “So we kept on practicing.”

Then the team watched in amazement as the scoreboard sailed over their heads and landed on Hollis Field. Practice over. The players dashed into the high school. Trudging home afterwards, Walker scanned the havoc in wonder. When he got home, bewildered residents were climbing over fallen trees blocking his street.

Ed Bolster, an 87-year-old resident of Canton, Mass., was at a matinee of You and Me, starring George Raft and Silvia Sidney, at the Strand Theatre in the town’s business district. “We were getting annoyed because the movie kept going off and on. Then someone came in the back of theater and said, ‘There’s a terrible windstorm outside.’”

The moviegoers watched from the lobby as a tree across the street snapped in the wind. As Bolster ran home, he could hear tree limbs strain and crack. Branches lined the streets. “My home seemed like a real haven when I got there,” he says. “I felt safe.” But the hurricane started to threaten that haven, blowing shingles off the roof. A pignut tree in his back yard shook back and forth. “The wind just picked it up, and it landed with an awful crash,” he says, dismantling the wood bench that surrounded the tree, which just blew away.

Without electricity, the Bolster family listened to records on a wind-up phonograph and watched the storm. When they walked around the town afterward, Bolster says, “We could see that it was a real disaster.” The roof and third floor of the Neponset Woolen Mills building had collapsed. The wind had also torn the roof of one of the hangars at Canton airport and wrecked several planes.

Lawrence Slaney, 92, who was a fire lieutenant in Hanover, Mass., when the Hurricane of ’38 hit, says the storm permanently changed the town’s landscape by destroying beautiful tree canopies on the streets. “On Circuit Street there were towering elm trees that branched out right over the road,” he says. “The wind took out 70 percent of them -- dropped them right in the road.”

Clearing the downed trees from the roads and yards had to be done by cutting them into sections with cross-cut saws and axes -- the chainsaw had been invented in 1926, but no one in the town had one. “Trees had fallen on houses, so we removed the trees and patched people’s roofs with tar paper,” says Slaney. “The electric power in the town went out, but the fire department had gas power, so people brought us babies’ milk to heat up. We also got a load of ice from Boston, and we gave it to people who came to the station with washtubs and buckets. It was quite a catastrophe.” -- BF


28 February 2003
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