When New England Looked Like New Orleans

The death toll alone made the hurricane that struck New England without warning in 1938 a shocker: 682 people died and another 1,754 were seriously injured. “Maine was the only New England state without a fatality,” R.A. Scotti writes. “Eighty-eight died in Massachusetts, ninety in Connecticut, twelve in New Hampshire, and seven in Vermont…more than fifty died on Long Island including twenty-nine in the Westhampton Beach area…more than half of the dead — 433 — were in Rhode Island, the greatest toll along the beaches of South County.”

Scotti is a former newspaper reporter and writes like one. Her account of the hurricane is packed with detail gleaned from contemporary accounts, later recollections and more recent interviews with survivors and relatives of the victims.

For those of us whose experience with New England hurricanes is limited to the brushes we’ve had with such storms since the 1950s, Sudden Sea is a real eye-opener. “Hurricane was a foreign word in New England then,” Scott writes. Winter gales were familiar, of course, but no major hurricane had reached New England since the Great September Gale of 1815. Tropical storms weren’t named in 1938; the science of forecasting wasn’t exactly primitive then, but it was far less developed than it is today.

So when this storm came barreling across the Atlantic from the Cape Verde Islands, heading for Florida, forecasters provided that state’s residents with repeated warnings. By Monday, Sept. 19, 1938, it looked as if the massive storm was going to strike Miami and Palm Beach. Alarms went up in New York and New England — the story made the front page of the New York Times — but no one really expected it to get that far, and by Sept. 20 it looked as if it would turn northeast, head out to see and blow itself out.

Unfortunately for New England, that didn’t happen. “As swift and sure as a Joe Louis punch,” Scotti writes, “the hurricane darted up the Atlantic coast at fifty, sixty, and seventy miles an hour, faster than most cars could travel in 1938. No hurricane had ever raced as fast. It arrived unannounced. It struck without warning, and it showed no mercy.”

In eastern Long Island and in Rhode Island, entire communities of summer and year-round homes were flattened. Because the storm hit after Labor Day many of the houses were unoccupied, but others were filled with families who had extended their vacations because of the unusually warm late-season weather. “Entire beach communities that seemed secure at lunchtime were wiped off the map by supper,” she writes.

The cities of Providence, Rhode Island, and New London, Connecticut, were flooded. Thousands of trees, including centuries-old elms in many New England towns, were uprooted. The Bostonian, a New York-to-Boston train, was derailed as the tracks washed out beneath it between Mystic and Stonington, Connecticut. A lighthouse tender ended up blocking train tracks in New London. Children traveling home on a school bus in Rhode Island were drowned as they tried to reach dry land. Bodies littered beaches.

When this book was published three years ago, the 1938 hurricane was still considered “the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history.” Events last year in New Orleans have rendered that statement obsolete, of course. But like Katrina, the Depression-era storm is another reminder that life is far less secure than we like to think.

David D. Platt is editor of Working Waterfront.