The Long Island Express
July 12, 2008 3:31 AM   Subscribe

It was called the Great Hurricane of 1938. The tradition of naming Cyclones had yet not begun, and not since 1869 had a storm of such ferocity hit the US mainland. What had made it unusally unique was the speed with which it had hit landfall, and the damage that it caused in its wake. (60 years on, and people can still recall the frightening grip that it had on their lives for those few days.)
posted by hadjiboy (20 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Using women’s names became the practice during World War II, following the use of a woman’s name for a storm in the 1941 novel "Storm" by George R. Stewart.

I didn't know that.
posted by three blind mice at 4:22 AM on July 12, 2008

Simply referred to as "38," it's still spoken of with a degree of dread and respect in my town, and not just by the old timers. New London caught the trifecta: wind, flooding, and a devastating fire that broke out in the midst of the storm.
posted by Kinbote at 4:53 AM on July 12, 2008

The survivors' stories link is amazing. Wow, from just one of them.

Thanks, hadjiboy, fascinating stuff.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:43 AM on July 12, 2008

Fantastic hadjiboy. This is why I love MeFi so much - this is something I most likely would never have come across, or even knew it would interest me, but because it was presented so well I was intrigued enough to start clicking and I'm glad I did. Thanks again.

That story Marie Mon Dieu links to is an incredible first hand account.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 6:06 AM on July 12, 2008

70 years on?
posted by netbros at 6:15 AM on July 12, 2008

My great-grandmother survived this storm only because she had typhoid fever and was located (and then stranded for some time) at a medical facility some distance from the coast and on higher ground. When telling me the story, she'd visibly start shaking. However, had this storm not happened she never would have gotten out of Galveston and met my great-grandfather, and my family would not exist.
posted by WolfDaddy at 6:19 AM on July 12, 2008

Where were all those WPA men when Katriana hit the Gulf Coast?
posted by robbyrobs at 6:24 AM on July 12, 2008

They still talk about this storm in my hometown, though it's becoming more like a historical fact than a living memory. Even today there are building which show damage. The story was that at some points waves went over land from one side to the other up near Montauk but I don't know if I believe that now. I always expected each hurricane growing up to be as bad. Gloria was the worst I saw, and wasn't too bad. No power for 10 days, trees down on the house. Chain saw noises and sawdust
posted by bottlebrushtree at 7:32 AM on July 12, 2008

Why does "speed with which it hit" not link to anything that talks about the speed?
posted by crapmatic at 7:43 AM on July 12, 2008

I just moved to Providence last month. Every historic building has a marker for how high the water came in '38. They're all at least chest height. It's freaky.
posted by Peevish at 7:58 AM on July 12, 2008

"Where were all those WPA men when Katriana hit the Gulf Coast?"

Moldering in their graves, I expect.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:34 AM on July 12, 2008

Great post! But, um, aside from the problems netbros and crapmatic point out, your "1869" link goes to a page that doesn't mention 1869. Maybe the post-editing function wouldn't be a bad idea after all.
posted by languagehat at 9:33 AM on July 12, 2008

I used to ask my grandparents where they were and how they managed when downtown Providence flooded.
posted by jfrancis at 10:44 AM on July 12, 2008

I've always found this Storm fascinating. Formative [recent] part of New England's history.

Thanks for the collection of links! It's been a while since I looked into it.
posted by Busithoth at 12:07 PM on July 12, 2008

I've gotten into the habit of mentioning '38 to any outsiders who start ranting about why anybody would live in New Orleans. Our local officials raised their game just in time and got the evactuation to work -- the first time it had ever worked, and just in time TYVM. That's the only reason we didn't have a 5 figure death toll. But what if another cat 5 like '38 hits New York City?

The National Weather Service keeps a list of the most "at-risk" cities for hurricane devastation. Before Katrina, New Orleans was #3. Orlando, FL was #2. And New York City was #1.

Powerful hurricanes may not get up the east coast as often as they come our way, but when they do you can't evacuate and even the defenses we have in the South don't exist.
posted by localroger at 12:56 PM on July 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ya, a quick moving hurricane with it's attendant storm surge landing in NYC is an evacuation nightmare.
posted by Mitheral at 4:56 PM on July 12, 2008

Localroger, Mitheral, I could understand that in 1938, pre satellites, when there was little warning of just how severe a storm was, and little predictability about its projected path and landfall, when forecasters relied on reports from ships at sea, aircraft, and the islands or other places already hit by the storms, but why now when there would be ample warning?
posted by Gungho at 4:32 AM on July 13, 2008


Define "ample warning." That's the problem ... trying to evacuate literally millions of people with "ample warning."

Meteorology is not an exact science and people have a nasty habit of assuming it to be fool-proof. If the forecasters are wrong, the next time round too many folks will ignore them. And storms are not that "predictable", either.
posted by aldus_manutius at 7:08 AM on July 13, 2008

I think their would still be problems with ample warning; however, it's quite possible NYC would have less than a day or two to react even with modern forecasting. Probable actually because a Hurricane large enough to cause catastrophic damage will have had to be moving fast. Compare the Katrina track to that of the '38 storm and you'll see what I mean. A NYC storm of the century will hit fast.

New Orleans had what, 500K people pre-katrina. NYC alone has 10+ million with probably the lowest car ownership percentage in the states. So you have 24-48 hours to evacuate 10 million people using mostly public transportation.

Then there are going to be the not insignificant number of people who, for whatever reason, refuse to leave. Lousiana's evacuation procedures kick in 50 hours before projected landfall. Something like 2-3% of residents of New Orleans refused to leave even after a mandatory evacuation. And approximately 20% of people in the greater New Orleans area did not evacuate and they had 4 days of progressively more certain warning and recent hurricane history to learn from. When was the last time NYC evacuated?

Once the evacuation is under way you have to deal with feeding and watering all those people and the infrastructure to do so is tens or hundreds of miles away.

It'll be ugly. Glad it's not going to be me managing it.
posted by Mitheral at 7:42 AM on July 13, 2008

An alternate history of hurricane naming conventions, and another. My mother grew up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I remember her telling me about Hurricane Alpha, which I think was in the 1940s prior to the use of women's names.
posted by Robert Angelo at 8:56 AM on July 13, 2008

« Older Universe Sandbox   |   Tony Snow, 1955-2008 Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments