Hundreds die, $millions lost as hurricane devastates area

... Stringers provide eye-witness accounts to the 1938 storm that no one knew was coming.

by the Melrose SilverStringers

Something new is afoot with this issue of the Mirror -- a joint writing effort of some dozen of our members, remembering what life was like during the massive hurricane of 1938. We use as a basis Navy Meteorologist Len Dalton's article on the causes of such storms, and then  insert (in italics) between his paragraphs, those excerpts provided in the personal accounts of the SilverStringers -- who were youngsters then, but there for that disaster. Some writers said, "What storm?", while others had ventured out into the violent winds and rain, just for the experience. So read on, the collection is "en-lightning".

During World War II, Allied pilots ferried planes south from the United States to Recife, Brazil and then across the ocean to Dakar in West Africa. Problems arose at certain times of the year when a pattern called the inter-tropical convergence zone formed between these two points. This anomaly created horrendous weather conditions -- especially for flyers.

In U.S. wintertime, that strange convergence zone is to the south of the equator 12 to 15 degrees. In summer, it occurs at the same latitude, but north of the equator.

As scientists learned more about weather patterns, it became clear that this inter-tropical convergence zone - the meeting place of the southeast and northeast trade winds - was the spawning place for many violent storms.

"There were 700 dead and an estimated $300 million in property damage throughout the Northeast". Ella Letterie.

It is believed that the hurricane of September 21, 1938 was born from the inter-tropical convergence zone. This zone of unsettled weather undulates and eventually one of the cycles goes so far to the north of the convergence line that it rejoins itself and leaves the stormy area floating around at random.

"In September 1938, the public was not very knowledgeable about hurricanes ... So we sat there in the parlor and watched the trees and bushes bend and sway ..." Virginia Hanley.

At this point the Coriolis force of the rotation of the planet Earth takes over and sets the stormy weather rotating counter clockwise, creating a tropical storm or possibly a hurricane. Upper level winds often shear the tops of a hurricane and mitigate the intensity so the storm will subside. Under slightly different circumstances, the shear will not take place and the storm will intensify with help from warm ocean temperatures, creating a class one to a class five storm.

"The storm was a nightmare experience for many people, but for me, a township tree surgeon, it assured me of work for endless months to come". Bill Jodrey.

In the Pacific, these storms are called typhoons but they are one and the same.

"... Gene heard the crack of the tree breaking and slammed on the brakes just seconds before the tree fell right in front of his car. A broken wire lashed across the hood, making a permanent mark". Bernadette Mahoney.

Upper level winds determine the courses of these storms. Usually they drift to an increasingly northerly course but often persevere in a westerly course to devastate the East coast of Mexico or the Gulf States.

In September, if a hurricane's course turns northerly, it can intensify, come ashore and wreak havoc on any part of the east coast of the United States. The South Carolina/North Carolina beaches are most vulnerable and are hit more than any other coastal area.

More lives are lost by far through flooding and storm surges than from wind forces.

" cousin was out in the storm doing his paper route. Trees were falling and it was pouring and there in the midst of all this was a poor little shivering kitten. He picked it up and stuffed it into the front of his jacket and ran home." Kay McCarte.

If the jet stream winds are right, the hurricane can hit anywhere from the Piedmont area of the Carolinas to New England. When the hurricane of 1938 struck New England, it must be noted that New England homes bore minimal damage because of the stronger construction. The 1938 hurricane moved from the Bahama Islands to Point Judith, Rhode Island in 24 hours!

"More time went by and the minister appeared and calmly announced that because of the fury of the storm, there was no way of determining just how late the groom would be." Natalie Thomson.

That was not true of coastal homes which succumbed to the tidal surge of the hurricane of 1938. But, in my own home in the south part of Melrose, I have registered 86 miles per hour northeast winds in two winter storms. The house never made a whimper!

"Ma had to detour out to Garrabrant Ave on the way home because a branch had broken and knocked down an electric line. It was sparking and hissing, and flopping around like a hurt snake. I think Ma drove the whole way home in first gear because you could hardly see out the windshield. Leaves and junk and bushes and trash barrels were flying all over the place." Don Norris.

Homes in the south of the United States are not constructed as well. I have actually measured the roof supports in some Florida homes and found the supports 36 inches on center compared to 16 or 18 inches on center in New England. No wonder our houses do well in a storm. With New England construction, Hurricane Andrew would not have been as destructive as it was in South area of Florida.

"I got on the wrong train and had to walk from Whitman to Brockton ... after some hours of hugging telephone poles and anything else I could hang onto, I arrived at more devastation around our street and house." Dave Moreland.

Today, hurricanes are monitored via satellite imagery, providing ample warning - although there is no guarantee which path a storm may take. Shipping is well warned and, indeed, shipping often sends weather measurements while in the throes of the storm.

"I was coming from football practice, fighting the strong winds. All of a sudden I noted that trees were starting to fall ... We listened to the radio news until the power lines were severed and we had no battery-powered means of communication". Russ Priestley.

As a weatherman, I was taught that vertical development of thunder storm clouds was limited by the tropopause which is the theoretical division between the bottom layer of the atmosphere or troposphere, and the stratosphere.

"Pop had to stay at a hotel in New York that night. I don't know how he ever got home. But things got back to normal pretty quickly. There were golfers on the course by Friday and riders on the tow path by Saturday." Don Norris.

Armed with a K-20 aerial camera with opaque lens filter and infra-red film, I was able to demonstrate that vertical development of cumulo-nimbus or thunder storm clouds were so violent that they often exceeded the theoretical limits and occasionally reached 70,000 feet!

My findings were later supported via satellite photos showing huge storm development in the Pacific to those levels. A friend at NASA supplied me with those photos and I gave them to the Melrose High School Science Department.

"These storms have made us aware how fragile we are - and the need to prepare for such catastrophies". Marie Moreland. "The next 'biggy' is supposed to wipe out Manhattan." Dave Moreland.

Editor's note: A complete listing of eleven storm stories can be found in the Special Section, "Hurricane of '38". There's a lot more where this came from!

September 1, 2000

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