Saturday, May 13, 2006

GH38 - The East Coast's Big One

In 1938, the East Coast experienced The Big One. In what is known as The Great Hurricane of 1938 (this was before the practice of naming storms) at least six hundred died, and 75,000 structures were destroyed. It was a monstrous storm, combining with a low pressure system in the manner of The Perfect Storm, becoming at its largest a behemoth extra tropical storm 1,000 miles across.

The storm surge struck the coast from Rhode Island across Long Island and the coast of the sound behind, the storm surge coming ashore at high Spring tide to produce a storm surge of over 20 feet, while Category 4 winds pushed 50 foot waves ashore atop that.

Coming as it did the day before Hitler invaded the Sudentenland and before the saturation media of today, GH38 was largely missed by most of the nation, just as it was missed by the National Weather Service in the days before satellites, radar and hurricane hunter aircraft. There was no forecast, and some people flocked down to the shore to watch the big storm role in. A lone junior forecaster warned of the impending disaster, but was discounted.

Cherie Burn's The Great Hurricane of 1938 is powerful reading, perhaps powerful enough that no one who stayed for Katrina would want attempt it . If you live anywhere along the east coast, and are suffering from Katrina fatigue, I would highly recommended it. With the impact of global warming on hurricane formation, it is an urgent reminder that it could happen to you.

Burn's tales of heroism and foolish risk, of loss and redemption, ring familiar to those who know Huracan's power. One common thread with the recent experience of NOLA and the Gulf Coast is the looting of downtown Providence, R.I.

"The looters outnumbered the officers, who were more intent on rescue than law enforcement" could have been taken from the Times-Picayune in 2006, but comes from an articles in Yankee Magazine in 1938.

"It was the opportunity so many had waited for, to finally have some of what they had been missing through the long Depression years," wrote David De John in magazine. "Brazen and insatiable, they swarmed like rats, they took everything."

Apparently, this sort of event is as likely to happen among what Burns calls "the yeasty mix of Yankees, Irish, Italians and Portuguese" that populated Providence in 1938 as it was among poor, inner-city blacks of 2006. The common thread is not race or political point of view, it was poverty and opportunity.

I leave you with this quote, from writer Frances Legrand who weathered the storm. "Confronting a storm is like fighting God. All the powers in the universe seem to be against you, your irrelevance is at the same time humbling and exhilarating."

I wasn't born yet, luckily. I used to caddy at the Misquamicut Club. The tee for the 13th hole is high above a road. There's a rock near the top of the tee marking the water level of the '38 hurricane. I grew up in Westerly and remember Carol in 1954. My father, a photographer, took me the next day to the shore. Hotels were washed out to sea and just foundations were left of homes. My aunt & uncle owned a home that was moved from close to the shore across a salt lake practically intact. The images are still with me. It was very eerie.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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