A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Seventy-Five Years Ago: The Great Hurricane of 1938

When the next one comes, will we be ready?
Peterborough, after the '38 Hurricane.
Photo courtesy Peterborough Historical Society.
If you were around in 1938, the stormy events that took place across a wide swath of New England were likely etched into your mind forever.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 was among my father’s earliest memories as a child. He was in Nashua when the storm started pounding New England. He remembers his mother holding him as the windows rattled and huge, old elms came smashing down on Nashua’s streets.

You’ll likely hear more about the storm in coming days as September 21 marks the 75th anniversary of the ’38 Hurricane.

It was New England’s deadliest hurricane, killing more than 600 people. Most of the tragic deaths were in Rhode Island; 13 were in New Hampshire.

It was also called the Long Island Express, because of where the storm came ashore to the great surprise of many unprepared souls. It crossed Long Island Sound, clobbered Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, then moved up the Connecticut River valley, tearing up New Hampshire before finally winding down in Vermont.

The storm’s power was awesome. It damaged or destroyed more than 57,000 homes and caused an estimated $308 million in property damage (in 1938 dollars.). Along the coast, boats were washed hundreds of yards inland. Houses were completely washed away, some of them containing whole families that had no clue such a storm was coming.

In New Hampshire, the storm’s impact was felt around the state, but much of its brunt was in the Monadnock Region. Concord, for instance, had only an inch of rain, while places like Peterborough and Keene got clobbered with wind and rain. Compounding the hurricane’s wrath were the several inches of rain that had fallen before the hurricane struck; the ground throughout much of the state was already waterlogged.

Water and Fire

Peterborough was a wreck. A fire that started in a grain mill attached to the Peterborough Transcript building devastated the Transcript and several other downtown buildings. With all the high water, firefighters had little access to the buildings and could do little to dowse the flames. In addition to the fire and flooding, some 10 bridges in town were destroyed.

Winds from the storm toppled an estimated 2 billion trees in New York and New England, affecting about one-third of New England’s forest area. In what’s now Pisgah State Park in Chesterfield, the hurricane felled a large chunk of a rare old-growth forest, a stand that had withstood centuries of previous storms, not to mention logging, disease, insects and other threats.

Salvage crews were quickly mobilized throughout New England, including some from the Civilian Conservation Corps. They salvaged an estimated 1.6 million board feet of downed trees, often by setting up portable saw mills and moving operations from one site to the next.

Despite salvage efforts, limbs and trees downed by the storm are said to have fueled forest fires throughout New England years afterward. One such conflagration was the great Marlow fire of April 1941, which scorched more than 20,000 acres in Marlow and surrounding towns.

You can still see evidence of the 1938 Hurricane in today’s forests. Even in the clear waters of Nubanusit Lake in Hancock and Nelson you can see trees intended for salvage that had sunk to the bottom.

Lessons from Nature

The storm taught several tough lessons; among them that New England is not impervious to the impact of hurricanes. It taught us a long list of ways to be better prepared for hurricanes and to warn the public of impending storms’ threats.

And as our climate continues to change and warming seas rise along the coastal Atlantic, the 1938 Hurricane continues to remind us of vulnerabilities and resilience. In Boston, for instance, the sea in relation to the land has risen about 10 inches in the past century. And of course, there are now many millions of more people along southern New England’s coast than there were in 1938.

Scientists have predicted that if a Long Island Express were to hit New England today – that is, the same path and intensity – it would cause an estimated $23.5 billion in damage. Another prediction pegs the damage at $39.2 billion. Keep in mind that 2012’s Hurricane Sandy – which caused $68 billion in damage – was classified as a Category 2 hurricane, while the ’38 Hurricane was estimated as a Category 3.

We’ve learned that nature itself can help us be resilient from such storms. Marshes, salt-marshes, sea grass, shellfish reefs and other natural features can absorb high surf and flood waters and blunt the impact of storms. We’ve learned that, while flood control dams can serve their purpose, New England’s plethora of old, obsolete dams can actually worsen flooding and can fail. Small and poorly designed culverts can not only restrict movement by fish, they can aggravate flooding, as seen in the 2005 Alstead flood. Rivers that run free and that include marshes and healthy floodplain forests can serve as natural and low-cost flood-control features.

Now scientists predict that warming air and sea temperatures may intensify and increase the frequency of big storms.

Whether the next big one comes this year, next year or in many years to come, there’s little doubt that a mega-storm like the ’38 Hurricane will happen here someday.

When it comes, will we be ready?
  • On Thursday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m., see "The Hurricane of 1938" at Putnam Theater, Keene State College. Sponsored by the Harris Center for Conservation Education, the Monadnock Conservancy, Keene State College, and the Monadnock Institute for Nature, Place and Culture.
Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.