Sep 26, 2018 | Charting the Past

Waves batter the seawall at Woods Hole during the 1938 Hurricane. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Lisa Cavanaugh 

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Florence. Harvey. Katrina. Bob. The names speak to the destructive power of wind and water, but for the people of New England the most devastating hurricane may have been the unnamed storm that battered our coastline 80 years ago this week.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 came as a surprise to many, which seems incredible in our own era of constant weather news and satellite projections. Weather forecasting and storm warnings systems of the time were technologically unsophisticated, counting on reports from ships at sea for much of their meteorological data. The weather bureaus couldn’t give us advance notice weeks ahead of landfall.

So in September of 1938, when a storm formed across the Atlantic near Cape Verde and made a slow journey toward America, residents of Southeastern New England remained unaware that, once near our coast, its track changed. The storm was no longer making a benign turn back east into the mid-Atlantic, but instead it was barreling north toward Long Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Meteorological reports the morning of September 21, 1938 were woefully mistaken about the force, speed and direction of the storm. One junior forecaster with the US Weather Bureau, Charles Pierce, using newer methodology, suspected the hurricane was enroute to New England, but more veteran meteorologists overruled him. They relied on an established understanding of typical patterns of tropical force storms in the Northeast. This would prove to be a tragic mistake.

Contemporary accounts, including that of Hollywood star Katherine Hepburn, who weathered the hurricane with her mother and brother at their (ultimately destroyed) home in Old Saybrook, CT, show that the morning of Sept. 21 dawned mild and sunny. But by mid-afternoon the winds picked up, rain poured and the full brunt of the storm hit. The hurricane made landfall first at Long Island and then once again on the coast of Connecticut, wreaking destruction across hundreds of miles.

According to state records, the Blue Hill Observatory atop a small mountain south of Boston recorded the strongest winds ever for the region: 121 mph sustained winds and gusts of 186 mph.

For the local fishing industry, the most dangerous aspect of the hurricane was the storm surges, which caused 18- to 25-foot tides from New London to Cape Cod, tossing vessels onto shore and into one another. Sections of the Woods Hole and Falmouth shorelines were eight feet under water, while in New London, a five-masted ship, the Marsala, smashed into a dockside warehouse, causing explosions and fires.

The region’s fishing fleets were demolished: 2,605 vessels destroyed and another 3,369 damaged. Stonington Connecticut’s fleet of more than 50 vessels was reduced to just two boats.

Many fishermen had set out that morning, lulled by the beautiful weather. One vessel, the 55-foot scalloper Sankaty Head, left New Bedford and rode out the storm near Martha’s Vineyard. A crew member, Louis Doucette, was featured years later in a video version of former New Bedford Standard-Times reporter Everett S. Allen’s 1976 book about the hurricane, A Wind To Shake The World:

“I was so busy myself trying to keep us pointing to the sea,’ said Doucette in the video. “We had 60-70 foot wave heights but we didn’t have the winds they had on shore, otherwise I don’t think we would have made it.”

He doesn’t remember being too frightened, however. “I had been in plenty of storms with my dad,” said Doucette, “but when a man is young you don’t have the fear. I never saw anybody aboard our boat that was shook up.”

The next day the scallop boat saw tons of debris drifting in the water as they came across Buzzards Bay and pulled into New Bedford. “I noticed the keeper’s house was gone,” said Doucette. “We went to Acushnet Fish and tied our boat up and the watchman told us to go home.”

Doucette took a taxi to his home on Garfield Street, which was full of anxious family and friends. “My dad, who went to sea all his life, put both arms around me and hugged me,” he said. “Everybody was crying and hugging me and then started laughing. It was a lovely way to come home.”

The front-page headline of the Falmouth Enterprise Sept. 23, 1938 edition read, “Death, Damage and Daring in Hurricane” and reported eight deaths in the town resulting from the storm. In total, 564 people were killed and another 1,700 injured in all of southern New England.

The Enterprise went on to describe much of the aftermath, including the quiet determination of the local fishermen to get back to work:

Both shores (of Falmouth Harbor) are lined with broken and bent craft … Fishermen coiled ropes, pumped their boats, and looked morosely at the curious. Their only answers to questions were laconic grunts, unintelligible in the still high wind that tossed the sunken small boats about like pieces of ice in a punch bowl.”

Stories from eight decades ago are a poignant reminder of the power of hurricanes, especially as news from the Carolinas continues in the aftermath of Florence. While New England is not often the target of as many ferocious hurricanes as our Southern neighbors, our local fishing fleet knows better than most that a combination of natural and manmade factors can result in deadly disaster.


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