Hurricane Force – by Charlotte Canelli

Charlotte Canelli is library director of the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

It wasn’t until 1953 that the National Hurricane Service began officially naming hurricanes in the scheme similar to today. In that year, they simply began with women’s names in alphabetical order. In 1979 the NHS included male names in the list.

And so, the New England Hurricane of 1938 had several names, among them the Great New England Hurricane and the Yankee Clipper. Amazingly, this hurricane was the first major hurricane to roar through New England in over half a century. (The last was the Saxby Gale in 1869.) The Great New England Hurricane was powerful, costly and deadly due to the intensity of its landfall (Category 3) and it reached far inland with its damage.

In Peterborough, NH there is a granite column marking the high water caused by the storm in 1938. It is outside of the Aquarius #1 Fire Museum on Summer Street, one block off Main Street and the downtown shops. The merging of the Contoocook River and the Nubansit Brook is only two blocks away. The marker is impressive because it is hard to imagine standing in that much water even if it was only waist high for a tall man.

However, it wasn’t the flooding that devastated Peterborough in September of 1938 even though ten bridges were also destroyed. It was the subsequent fire and the fact that the floodwaters prevented firefighters from getting to the blaze and putting it out. Much of the downtown burned, including the local newspaper offices due to the fire and the memories are forever etched in Peterborough’s history.

All of the states of New England were affected by that 1938 storm that spanned 1000 miles and reached from New Jersey to Quebec. Damage in Massachusetts reached far into the west in towns like Amherst and Pittsfield.

Our library owns a copy of “The 1938 Hurricane: An Historical and Pictorial Summary” published by the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory in 1988. This book is part of the library’s reference collection and you are welcome to read it while you are in the library – it is only 128 pages long and is filled with black and white photographs taken in the aftermath of the storm. The Blue Hill Observatory is located in East Milton, MA where the “second highest recorded wind gust in the world occurred” during the 1938 Hurricane.

In “Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938” (2003), R.A. Scotti describes a hurricane with winds as high as 186 miles an hour and an intensity that registered on seismographs in Alaska. In “The Great Hurricane – 1938” (2005) Cherie Burns tells a story of a storm that involved minimal forecasting or warning from the weather experts. There was, in fact, very little talk of weather on the late summer night of September 21. Unlike the preparation (and the media hype) of Hurricane Irene, the fast-moving hurricane struck with little warning, destroying fishing fleets and families and killing 700 people.

In 2005, the Images of America series published “The 1938 Hurricane along New England’s Coast” by Joseph P. Soares. If you are familiar with the pictorial accounts in the Images of America series you’ll know that there are hundreds of historic images included in the 127-page book.

“New England Hurricane: A Factual, Pictorial Record, 1938” is available in the library or it can be viewed online at the Internet Archive (www.archive.org). It was written and compiled in 1938 by members of the Federal writers’ project of the WPA in the New England States. The writers describe the hurricane this way: “3:50 at New Haven. 5:06 at Hadley, Massachusetts. Up through the heart of Vermont. Burlington at 8:00 pm.”

“Oliver’s Surprise” by Carol Newman Cronin is a fictionalized account of the 1938 written for middleschoolers but it includes facts about the storm and a glossary of nautical terms. Cronin wrote a second book about Oliver and hurricanes, this one about Hurricane Carol which hit the East Coast in 1954. That storm, described in “Cape Cod Surprise: Oliver Matches Wits with Hurricane Carol” blew down the spire of the Old North Church.

Once again, the Blue Hill Observatory and Science Center, compiled another hurricane history in the 2005 publication of “Carol at 50: Remembering Her Fury – A Historical and Pictorial Summary of Hurricane Carol” by Charles Orloff. The Great Blue Hill in Milton is home to the oldest continuous weather record in North America and includes the 12-year old Science Center. (Family membership includes free admission and tours of the observatory, science lectures and access to the weather records.)

Sebastian Junger’s “Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea” describes a storm that emerged from the remnants of Hurricane Grace and ended full force as the Halloween Nor’easter off the coast of the Massachusetts and Maine.

Other books record the history of notable hurricanes outside of New England. In “Category Five: the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane”, Thomas Neil Knowles documents “the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the United States” off the coast of Florida. Erik Larson wrote ”Isaac’s Storm: A Man, A Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History” (1999) about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. Also in our library’s collection is “Galveston and the 1900 Storm: Catastrophe and Catalyst” by Patricia Bellis Bixel.

There are well over 100 books in the Minuteman Library Network written about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and an entire column could be devoted to those. One of the most recent is a book that focuses on the Coast Guard’s heroic efforts throughout Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in “In Katrina’s Wake: The U.S. Coast Guard and the Gulf Coast Hurricanes of 2005” by Donald L. Canney.

Several of the books mentioned above are available from other Minuteman libraries. For help searching in the Minuteman catalog for these titles or for placing requests for all library materials please visit the Morrill Memorial Library, call the Reference librarians (781-769-0200) or visit the Minuteman Library Catalog on our website, www.norwoodlibrary.org.

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