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Gripping account of New England's worst storm
on July 16, 2005
As author Cherie Burns notes more than once in her wonderful new book, "The Great Hurricane: 1938", it's hard to believe that with all the advances in meteorology over the past half-century that there could still today have been a time in people's memories where they were taken by surprise by such a large and deadly hurricane. Yet, that's exactly what happened on September 21, 1938 when New England (and Long Island) bore the brunt of this storm.
What struck me immediately was the fact that people didn't refer to such storms in New England as "hurricanes"...those were storms that hit Florida and the Caribbean. New Englanders were used to "nor'easters" and this one was referred to as the "big blow". The results, after only four hours of onslaught were, of course, devastating. Moving at an incredible sixty miles per hour, "GH38" (as the author calls it) made landfall on the eastern shore of Long Island, creating havoc there before it slammed into Connecticut. Rhode Island suffered the most damage, death and injury as GH38 wiped out most of the shoreline, including an entire small community, Napatree Point, before surging waters overwhelmed the city of Providence. More than seven hundred people died overall and the cost in terms of casualties and property loss would be counted for weeks.
Ms. Burns has an eye for detail and a dramatic narrative style that lends itself well to a book about a natural disaster. She relates that the United States was recently emerging from the shadows of the Depression and gives us reminders not just of life in general, but of people's every day activities. It's her careful approach to this aspect which helps put down a foundation for her story. The bonding elements, though, are those people who actually lived through that awful day...the reader gets to know them as if they were our own next-door neighbors. Her compilation of the collective memories of those she writes about are stirring. Some managed to keep a sense of humor as their worlds were falling apart around them while others simply suffered terrible consequences from the wrath of the storm. The most famous survivor of GH38 was Connecticut's Katharine Hepburn, whose house in Fenwick floated one third of a mile downstream. But this book really belongs to another Catherine...Catherine Moore, whose Rhode Island house broke apart after her family and others had taken refuge in the attic. Just after the wind blew the roof off, they managed to make the attic floor a raft and away they sailed, ending up on Barn Island in Connecticut. Catherine's split-second decisions combined with a fair amount of luck, undoubtedly saved her family.
As she nears the end of the book, Cherie Burns sums up the catastrophe in largely human terms. I laughed out loud when I read about the irony of a lumber mill operator in Brookline, Massachusetts. The farm lost two hundred trees and the author writes, "the owner set up a sawmill to salvage building lumber, and the rest was stacked in woodpiles to burn in stoves and fireplaces. The supply would last until 1980, when her grandson burned the last bundle". This warm, humorous anecdote helps to offset the tragedy of the great hurricane of 1938. Cherie Burns has put together a terrific book about a terrible day, and as I read it in one sitting, I highly recommend it.