...Without today's technology, New England only had a few hours to prepare.
September, 21, 1938 was a pleasant time for an 8 year old. I was only a second grader and while on the way home from the Winthrop School to our home on Upham Street at Brookledge Road here in Melrose, I heard other kids say a storm was coming. My mother had never experienced a hurricane before and so didn't know enough to keep me in the house. As a result, she let me go out to watch trees sway back and forth and to fetch kerosene for a couple of houses near us. It might be of interest that it had been a very long time since such a hurricane had ravaged Melrose that there were many more fir trees than there are now. In fact it was since 1815. This storm was at the Bahama Islands 24 hours before striking the south coast of Rhode Island, wiping out the entire coast and 600 lives!
As time and the storm progressed, I watched fascinated as the high fir trees with their shallow roots blew back and forth and some, just fell flat on the ground. It was over in the back yards of Highview Avenue that I had the most fun as enormous pines gave in to the wind and crashed down. Mr. Judd Place had a yard which extended way back from Upham Street and I watched the Highview Avenue trees crash from there. Many maples succumbed as well and cement sidewalks all over town were ripped up by tree roots. To my knowledge, the only damage to buildings was from flying debris and tree limbs.
The concrete sidewalks here and there were torn up by tree roots. City workers had their work cut out for them in hand-sawing the wreckage. No chain saws then. Later a lot of cement sidewalks were replaced.
Unlike our city, the hurricane struck the south shores of Rhode Island and Massachusetts with great devastation and loss of life. Many in that area drowned as houses were ripped from foundations and washed into the sea. Downtown Providence was entirely submerged from the tidal surge. Cape Cod was badly mauled as well. Had New England the technology of today, that severe loss of life could have been prevented. Boats and even ships tied up ashore were either sunk or cast up on the shore. It was terrible. The lowest barometer reading was 28.90 inches.
In the City of New Bedford, a dam with large gates was constructed later which could defend the city in the event of another hurricane. It works very well.
Eventually, I got corralled by my Mom before dark and the storm was over when I awoke in the next morning. What a mess! Naturally school was cancelled. All the kids explored what seemed to be a brand new Melrose! Every street in the city had trees down. A lot of services were out but since it was September all the people were patient about it. Most Melrosians had kerosene lamps and some used kerosene for cooking. The big part was the clean-up of the mess left behind the storm. Thinking back on the event, I wonder if those trees served to slow the surface wind enough to protect the homes.
As the storm progressed further up through New England, it created an enormous mess with forest blow-downs which were still there a generation later. The Civilian Conservation Corps did a great piece of work in cleaning up the mess in our forests and stabilizing the north country.
Since 1938, tremendous strides have been made in meteorology. Now, with satellite imagery, such an horrendous storm cannot sneak up on and hurt so many people.
September 1, 2000