A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1838
October 10, 2016

HURRICANE OF ‘38

MONTPELIER – It was the fall of 1976. My crew and I were building a new house at the western foot of Moose Mountain in Etna, New Hampshire. Elmer Dana, an elderly farmer who lived just across the road, came over daily to see how we were getting on. On a raw, gusty afternoon, as we stood in the yard, he shivered. “I’ve never gotten used to the wind,” he said. “Ever since the hurricane, if it blows hard, I go down in the cellar.”

Elmer was in his seventies at the time, and the hurricane that had so impressed him had blown through at high speed almost forty years earlier. But he’d obviously never gotten over it.

With the memory of Tropical Storm Irene fresh in Vermonters’ minds – a candidate for governor is, in fact, citing her leadership experience in the cleanup operations as a qualification for the higher office – we watched the recent development and movement of Hurricane Matthew with guarded optimism. The question, Could it happen here? has been answered; what remains is, Will it again? All sorts of things run through our minds with the approach of a major storm: flashlight batteries, candles, extra water (for those of us with electric well pumps), Coleman fuel, firewood, gas in the vehicles, reducing the amount of perishables in the refrigerator and freezer. Here in the bushes, we don’t think much about nailing plywood over our windows for windstorms; but the Hurricane of Thirty-Eight blew out plenty.

A few months ago the Yale University Press sent me a copy of Thirty-Eight – The Hurricane That Transformed New England, by Stephen Long, the former editor of Northern Woodlands magazine. I’ve been a bit distracted lately, so had only dabbed at it till the past week or two, when Matthew recalled it to mind, and I picked it up again. I’m delighted I did.

Most natural disaster stories focus primarily on the experiences of the various folks who experienced them, so the excitement of reading them is like that of watching a barn fire. Those stories are here, all right, but there’s a lot more. The bibliography is lengthy, and there’s substantial input from neighborhood meteorologists, including Vermont’s favorite, Mark Breen. Stephen’s really done his homework, and it shows.

Most of us, when we were in grade school or high school science, studied (or at least were given the opportunity to study) the formation of tropical storms and hurricanes. Now, with the growing influence of global warming, that knowledge is fast becoming more timely. This book actually could serve as a textbook on the subject.

Stephen’s description of the slow formation of the monster of a hurricane reminds me of the scene in the old horror movie Thing from Another World, in which an alien being is revived from a frozen state by a numbskull corporal who covers the ice block imprisoning it with an electric blanket that’s been left on. A storm’s growth from a simple tropical thunderstorm to a rotating low pressure system, sucking its strength from the warm ocean, whirling ever faster, and finally choosing a path dictated by neighboring weather systems, is fascinating.

Trees also figure heavily in the narrative. The 1938 hurricane is rightly reputed “the storm that transformed New England.” It crashed into forests that were beginning to replace the open pastures of the century before – trees not yet organized to resist high winds – and on the hillsides exposed to both the spinning wind and the forward motion of the storm, felled millions.

Hardest hit were the maple sugar makers, many of whose sugarbushes were reduced by over half, with the surviving trees often stripped of their branches. Landowners with thriving forests sold their downed trees at prices depressed by the glut of timber. Some sawmill operators, however, did well by the calamity; the government, thanks to the price supports of Roosevelt’s New Deal and in anticipation of demand for lumber in the approaching war, was buying in quantity.

Speaking of the war, here’s an interesting bit: Stephen includes in his chapter on people’s experiences of the storm this glimpse of Vermont life from Harry Brainerd, a farmer in Corinth: “We had a Ward’s airline radio and the aerial was across on the old barn. That came flying down and we decided that the wind was really blowing. We used to listen to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis about three nights a week, and they had an interpreter that came on and translated into English....We used to listen to Lowell Thomas as our regular American commentator.”

A couple of familiar names pop up. An old friend, Putnam Blodgett, now living at Kendal in Hanover, was a boy of seven in Bradford, Vermont. His father, like many men that September day, had a hard time getting home from a fair. Mrs. Blodgett, without electric power, put a cold supper on the table, but it was sprinkled with glass when an elm branch came through the window.

An excellent book! But I can’t resist recommending that once you finish it, you pick up “Typhoon,” my favorite story by my favorite author, Joseph Conrad. Captain MacWhirr, of the Chine Sea steamer Nan-Shan, stands in his chart room “confronted by the fall of a barometer he had no reason to distrust.....[it] was of a nature ominously prophetic.... ‘That’s a fall, and no mistake,’ he thought. ‘There must be some uncommonly dirty weather knocking about.’” The good Scottish captain was better warned than New England was in that September of 1938, and what came next in both cases are stories that make great reading on a cool October afternoon.

Photo by Willem lange