Monday, September 20, 2010

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938: The Aftermath in Western Massachusetts

"New England tobacco barn."
In the mid-afternoon of September 21, 1938, a fast-moving hurricane, the likes of which hadn't been seen in two-hundred years, slammed without mercy into Long Island, New York, at Great South Bay and continued hastily north along its path of despair, racing across Long Island Sound into the unsuspecting coastal town of Milford, Connecticut. By dinner time, the indiscriminate meteorological demon was tearing up Vermont, leaving Milford and dozens of other New England towns and cities dazed and digging out or underwater in its wake.

Western Massachusetts was not spared the hurricane's scouring winds or stinging, pelting downpour. Indeed, the buckets of precipitation borne westward from the African coast upon the hellish cyclonic winds of September 21st only served to exacerbate an already-saturated Bay State, the abundantly wet summer of 1938 keeping streams, rivers and ponds full and bursting at their banks. When the hurricane hit, the flooding commenced. Wind and water at powerhouse speeds lashed the valleys and hills, and swept the land like a broom of fate.

The following images snapped shortly after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 are from America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945, which is part of the American Memory Collections at the website of the Library of Congress. Captions in quotes are from the website.

"House in Amherst, Massachusetts."
Around 9,000 homes were destroyed in New York and New England as a result of the hurricane, with estimates of another 15,000 to 25,000 damaged.

"Tobacco Barn in Amherst, Massachusetts."
In total, about 19,000 structures, including barns and other outbuildings, were considered total losses after the hurricane, their damage was so complete.

"Tobacco barn near Amherst, Massachusetts."
Property damage added up to over $300 million in 1938 dollars, which translates to around 4 to 6 billion 2008 dollars.

"Tobacco barn in Massachusetts."
The Great New England Hurricane, also known as The Long Island Express, pummeled Western Massachusetts tobacco farms, striking during the late season leaf-curing process.

"Chicken house between Worcester and Amherst, Massachusetts."
At the height of the rushing hurricane, winds in excess 100 miles per hour hammered New England with a vengeance only unwitting nature can unleash. A wind gust of 186 miles per hour was recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts.

"Farmer clearing debris of chicken house between Worcester and Amherst, Massachusetts."
Accounts vary on the storm's ultimate toll in human life and limb. Common estimates put the number of deceased at around 700, with the number of injured at about 1,800.

"Chicken house near Worcester, Massachusetts."
In a matter of a few desperate afternoon hours on the first day of Autumn, healthy, vital livestock was decimated throughout the Pioneer Valley and beyond, farmers left to pick up the pieces of their broken livelihood.

"Chicken house damaged by the debris of a second chicken house which was demolished between Worcester and Amherst, Massachusetts."
In addition to the thousands of livestock lost to the chaotic onslaught, upwards of 750,000 unfortunate chickens are thought to have perished on Long Island alone.

"Apple orchard near North Brookfield, Massachusetts. This orchard has seven thousand trees and eighty-five percent of them went down."
Much of the region's ready-to-harvest apple crop was wiped out by the storm. Many mature trees were lost for good, large portions of orchards left in need of replanting.

"Pine wood lot near North Brookfield, Massachusetts."
At one point, the Great New England Hurricane had reached top-ranking on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale, clocking in as a Category 5 on September 20th before settling into a horrifically damaging Category 3 on the 21st. Striking the Southern New England coastline at high tide with the moon at full face, the hurricane wreaked havoc unimaginable on a populace virtually unwarned by forecasters of the weather.

"Pine wood lot near Worcester and Amherst, Massachusetts."
When the sky cleared and the storm had passed, the Northeast was less 275 million trees in her forests and glens.

"Pine wood lot near Worcester and Amherst, Massachusetts."
Amherst's town center was altered forever with drastic destruction: 3,000 trees on and around the Common twisted victims of the storm's swift saber of wind.

"Flooded-over cornfield near Amherst, Massachusetts."
Roads were erased and train tracks washed out when the hellacious hurricane of 1938 swept across Western Massachusetts. In all, 26,000 automobiles were destroyed in its stead.

"Onions, corn stalks, and debris washed across the road by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts."
The Connecticut River, already swollen with the steady downpour that had fallen relentlessly on the area in the days before the storm, easily reached several feet high above flood stage as the raging torrent of hurricane rain poured from the sky.

"Onions, corn, and a mixture of debris brought in by the Connecticut River flood near Northampton, Massachusetts."
The heavy devastation inland notwithstanding, the coastal areas of Southern New England bore the brunt of the hurricane's blind and calamitous trajectory, with 2,600 boats destroyed and thousands more damaged. Maritime and many other industries, already off-balance as a result of the Great Depression, reeled under nature's cursed blow.

"Salvaging onions near Hadley, Massachusetts."
A landscape strewn with viciously unearthed onions 'twas surely perfumed with a pungent breeze.

"Salvaging onions near Hadley, Massachusetts."
Power went out and communications were lost as nearly 20,000 miles of the electric and telephone lines zig-zagging the Northeast were torn from their masts. Virtually everyone was in the dark in the wake of The Long Island Express. Thirty percent of New England picked up their telephone receivers and heard only dead air.

"Salvaging onions near Hadley, Massachusetts."
A smile of hope after a brush with death. Onions are gathered, weighed and bagged. Life goes on after the storm.

"Onion field near Hadley, Massachusetts."
Today, there are warning systems and around-the-clock weather stations on television and radio to keep folks up to snuff on the latest perceived possible future atmospheric inclinations of Mother Nature. Still, more of us are here now, living on the beaches and in the fertile floodplains, planting our foundations in homes where corn and onions used to grow, or on grains of sand ever-shifting, infinite configurations of storm-whipped possibilities. Are we ready?

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 remains the meanest, strongest, most powerful storm to hit the Northeast in two centuries. Long may it hold that distinction.

Here's a link to a PDF of an interesting 2008 report by Risk Management Solutions, Inc. exploring the potential outcome of a similar storm hitting the Northeast in the modern day:

As always, thanks for stopping by and take care.

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Ashlee said...

Love the photos. I'm going to have to ask my grandma about this... She was 18 at the time.

Michaelann Bewsee said...

My Dad told me about this, although the flood of 1936 stuck in his mind even more.

Rob Alberti - CT Wedding DJs said...

Looks like the images we took after the tornado that went through in the 80's through Windsor Locks, CT