The Hurricane of ’38

Why doesn’t any thing exciting ever happen around here?

That day I walked home from Junior High with Hughie Chapin. He peeled off on Hundreds Circle at Ledgeways and I went on to my house close by. Even if it seemed a bit calm, warm, and humid, this was an unremarkable September afternoon.

No one was home but our housekeeper Maude—Daddy in town at the office and Mother out and about in the car. Around three-thirty we became aware of a rising breeze from the southeast, coming in gusts and swaying the trees in our wooded lot. Soon green leaves began to fill the air and I went outside to see what was happening. By then the wind had risen hugely and suddenly, before my eyes, a huge oak crashed down partially blocking our driveway.

Wow! Excitement. I ran over to Hughie’s and, as I ran, other trees fell. So that by the time we two returned to Ledgeways there was nothing further remarkable about downed trees—they surrounded the house.

Unexpectedly (impossibly?) Mother arrived after tortuous weaving and backing through the neighborhood and we all decided to walk down to [Wellesley] Farms to meet Daddy at the train. The train was late. We walked back through the storm with other commuting neighbors. By then dark had fallen and at the house we discovered a large tree leaning and lunging against the second floor porch railing. Daddy took an axe and, in his business suit, cut the tree so that the top fell away allowing the trunk to spring clear. By midnight the wind had largely abated. There was no electricity and no heat nor hot water, and so to bed.

No school the next day. For weeks the air was filled with the aroma of torn leaves. The world was transformed; nothing seemed familiar. We clambered through the fallen trees playing house among the branches. Gradually after weeks and months the destruction was cleared by men, not with chainsaws, but with bucksaws, two-man saws, and axes. Fifteen mature trees came down on our quarter-acre lot; a lot underlain by ledge which gave roots only shallow purchase. The resulting piles of cordwood, neatly stacked here and there, eventually rotted away for lack of days and years to burn them in the fireplace.

The storm struck from the sea; a complete and disastrous surprise especially for those living in coastal areas on eastern Long Island and southern New England and the Islands. Although the Weather Service knew of the storm the news failed to reach the general public in time. The eye made landfall at New Haven and pretty much moved straight north up the valley of the Connecticut River. Consequently the strongest winds to the east were southerly and had added to their circulation the velocity of the storm mass itself; winds clocked at 121mph at Great Blue Hill. For decades afterward hikers in much of New England struggled over and under the decaying trunks in the forest—all pointing north.

The ocean surge was gigantic having come in on a spring tide. There are marks on the buildings in downtown Providence, Rhode Island thirteen feet above mean high water. There was little or no rain, most of it having caused flooding on the western side of the eye.

And so at last we had an answer to the adolescent’s perennial question: Why doesn’t anything exciting ever happen around here?


Later we heard funny stories about things that were supposed to have happened:

o  On the morning of the storm a lady in New Haven—let’s say—had just accepted postal delivery of an expensive barometer she had ordered from Abercrombie and Fitch. Upon opening the package it seemed to her that the needle was stuck at the extreme low end of the scale—near 28 inches of mercury. After much tapping, sure that it was defective, she repackaged it with a note and took it back to the post office.

When she returned home her house was gone.

o  A book store on Long Island had its display window blown in. One book remained on the shelf—Gone With the Wind. [At that time a contemporary novel; weightier than most.]

o  On the Web: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1938_New_England_hurricane


Wm. C. Atkinson, 2013


 

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