Hurricanes are part of life when you live near the coast, Earl being a recent if soon to be forgotten example. But by now, we all know the drill. We track the little pinwheel on our computers, TVs and smart phones, vigilant for days as the storm either strengthens or fizzles, hugs the coast or drifts out to sea. In the meantime, we kvetch a little on our way to the supermarket to stock up on bottled water, flashlight batteries and canned food. We bring in the grill and the patio furniture. Then we head down to the beach to check out the waves. (Trying to get down to Nauset when Earl hit was like trying to go to the beach at ten am on a weekend in July, with traffic backed up to Grandview. Though I sort of love my fellow Cape Codders for that.)
I’m in the process of researching a new book and I’m not sure any of this will ever see the light of day, but I’ve been reading up on the great hurricane of 1938. Consider how what we know about hurricanes has changed, and how perhaps even what we know now wouldn’t have mattered in the face of a storm so monstrous.
-In 1938, many New Englanders didn’t know what a hurricane was. The word wasn’t even in their vocabularies.
-Before 1938, there hadn’t been a major hurricane since 1869, meaning no one alive had ever lived through one. No Carol or Gloria or Bob, or stories of Andrew survivors huddled in closets as their Florida houses crumbled around them.
-There was no warning. No forecast. No Pete Bouchard. People woke up that morning to sunshine and newspaper headlines about how France and England were caving to pressure from Hitler over Czechoslovakia.
-The arrival of the hurricane of 1938 coincided not just with high tide, but the highest astronomical tide of the year, creating a storm surge that flooded downtown Providence and New Bedford, and left parts of the Cape under 8 feet of water.
-This storm had sustained winds of 121 mph, with recorded gusts of 186 mph. That’s like an F3 tornado.
-The death toll was about 700, and nearly 60,000 homes were damaged or lost.
It’s just rather humbling, and something to think about the next time you’re feeling safe because your car’s gassed up and you have enough peanut to last two weeks.