Recollections of tragedy and trauma from a 1938 storm of singular ferocity that took the northeastern U.S. totally by surprise.
Journalist Burns (Stepmotherhood, 1986) takes a little time getting to the story’s crux. Imagine the worst tropical storm you’ve ever been in, seen on TV,or heard about. Now imagine the same hurricane with no weather satellite pictures, no television, no cell phones, no rescue helicopters, no localized severe-weather radio warnings and no Interstate highways to funnel out evacuees even if there had been. The author diligently mines and layers anecdotes to build a picture of Long Island and New England seacoast communities in a balmy late September, trying to wring just a few more vacation days away from the still palpable drag of the Great Depression and the even more threatening clouds of war in Europe. With little more than the vague “gale warnings” most locals associated with a typical nor’easter, it hit: a great elongated eye clawing north at an unparalleled 60 miles per hour over open ocean, with winds gusting to more than 180 m.p.h. Pounding waves associated with a storm surge averaging higher than 20 feet would register on a seismograph 5,000 miles away in Alaska. The fact that 700 or more lives were lost is appalling enough, but the role played by lack of information is almost incomprehensible today. Fragile telephone systems became the first line of infrastructure blasted away. So as the eye of what would later be known simply as the Great Hurricane of 1938 (naming conventions were yet to come) advanced on the coastlines of Connecticut and Rhode Island, no one there even knew that it had devastated most of eastern Long Island two hours before. Weddings, picnics, even some fishing trips would proceed without hesitation, yet shoppers would later drown in downtown Providence.
Bizarre tales of survival and doom: a plum for beach-chair readers who like to raise surrounding eyebrows.