Taken by Storm, 1938

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Taken by Storm, 1938

A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane
Lourdes B. Avilés
Copyright: 2013
ISBN: 978-1-878220-37-0
List Price: $40.00
Member Price: $30.00
Student Price: $30.00

On September 21, 1938, the Great New England Hurricane hit the Northeast unannounced and left utter devastation in its wake. The science behind this hurricane is presented here with new data and perspectives that shed light on the motivations of the Weather Bureau forecasters as the storm shot north toward a coastline densely populated by people who had no experience with hurricane-force winds and storm surge.

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Pages: 288
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On September 21, 1938, the Great New England Hurricane hit the Northeast unannounced and left utter devastation in its wake. The storm changed everything from the landscape and its inhabitants’ lives, to Red Cross and Weather Bureau protocols, to the measure and kind of Great Depression relief New Englanders would receive and the resulting pace of regional economic recovery. The science behind this hurricane is presented here with new data and perspectives that shed light on the motivations of the Weather Bureau forecasters as the storm shot north toward a coastline densely populated by people who had no experience with hurricane-force winds and storm surge. Meteorology, forecasting, and storm preparedness practices were already in transition, and after September 1938 they would be changed forever.








Part I: Overview

Chapter 1. The Great Hurricane of 1938

Chapter 2. The Tools of the Trade


Part II: Life Cycle

Chapter 3. Birth of the Storm

Chapter 4. Florida's Sigh of Relief

Chapter 5. "It Doesn't Happen in New England"

Chapter 6. Sudden Devastation

Chapter 7. Interior New England Impacts


Part III: Aftermath

Chapter 8. What Was Left Behind

Chapter 9. Past, Present, and Future



Appendix: Report from the Weather Bureau to the Secretary of Agriculture, October 3, 1938








Lourdes B. Avilés

Lourdes B. Avilés is Associate Professor at Plymouth State University’s Meteorology Program in Plymouth, New Hampshire.

Royal Meteorological Society

Ask anyone to name the hurricane that has left the greatest impression on the lives of people and communities in the USA, and the infamous Katrina, Andrew, Camille and Sandy are likely to emerge as frontrunners–and Sandy was not even a hurricane in the true sense of the definition by the time it hit the US mainland. These were named hurricanes of very recent times, but the naming of hurricanes was not a practice until the 1950s, so the iconic Great New England Hurricane of 1938 is unlikely to feature in the memories of the public, unless they were directly affected by the storm. It was the most powerful storm of the twentieth century to hit the northeastern states of America, an area where these events are a rarity. It arrived largely unannounced on 21 September 1938 and left a trail of destruction in its wake.
     Lourdes B. Avilés is Associate Professor at Plymouth State University’s Meteorology Program in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Her fascination with hurricanes was born during her childhood in Puerto Rico. The idea for this book followed on from a community education talk she presented at the Taylor Retirement Community in Laconia, New Hampshire.
     The aim of this book was not to retell old news but to gather stories that illustrate various aspects of the hurricane from events before, during and after the storm, in the context of its meteorological history and the social history of the time. I believe Avilés has easily achieved her goal in this well researched book. Divided into three parts and nine chapters, the book traces the event from its birth near the Cape Verde Islands on 10 September 1938, through its growth into a tropical storm, its maturing into a fully fledged hurricane as it crossed the Atlantic, to its untimely transition into an extra-tropicalsystem as it made landfall; the synoptic set up at the time over the Eastern Seaboard aided the storm’s intensification and created a trail of widespread devastation across New England. Avilés addresses questions such as why the storm was not spotted for several days after its formation and why it was predicted by the understaffed Weather Bureau to head towards Florida, not New England. How did the Weather Bureau explain the lack of adequate warning? Indeed, was it even possible to predict at that time? Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster who went on to a distinguished forecasting career, was the only one to predict the storm’s landfall accurately, but senior forecasters ignored his prediction, a mistake that cost many lives. Other topics covered include how the communities and environment reacted and recovered, and what lessons were learnt.
     Avilés also describes the timing of the event in an historical and social context, including the influence of the Great Depression, which was not yet over, and how the impending war in Europe, soon to involve the USA, influenced the chain of events. She also takes an in-depth look at whether the more recent event, Sandy, is comparable to the hurricane of 1938. These and many other facts are woven into this unique book about a storm and its profound effect on a community and the wider public. Avilés has presented as much of the science as possible in a book packed with fascinating information, while the absence of scientific equations makes it suitable for the general reader. It is a compelling read, with regard not only to this particular storm but to hurricanes in general. I can thoroughly recommend this book.

Graham Denyer

Choice Review

The Great New England hurricane of 1938 devastated much of Long Island and southern New Englad. Forecasters lacked the modern tools in use today to predict hurricanes and were not able to foresee the hurricane's unusual path. Even when it became clear to meteorologists what was happening, they lacked the instant and multiple communication channels now available to issue warnings. The result was a massive loss of life and property in inland New England as well as along the coast. Avilés (meteorology, Plymouth state Univ.) describes the life cycle and aftermath of the storm and in the process provides a thorough history of meteorology and hurricane prediction in the early 20th century. She compares the 1938 hurricane with other major storms known to have struck in New England, and describes the chances of another such storm in the future and its likely impacts. Many sidebars, black-and-white photographs, charts, and graphics are included. An appendix contains the report from the Weather Bureau to the secretary of agriculture on the storm. Summing Up: Recommended. All academic history, New England studies, and meteorology collections; general readers.

A.C. Prendergast, University of South Alabama

The New England Quarterly

On 21 September 1938, residents of New York and New England awoke to somber skies and depressing news headlines. France and England had already acceded to many of Adolf Hitler’s demands, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was preparing to travel to Munich to negotiate with the Nazi leader about the partitioning of Czechoslovakia. In the upper right-hand corner of the New England edition of the New York Times appeared that day’s official forecast: “Rain, probably heavy, today and tomorrow, cooler.”

The following day, much of Long Island and New England lay in ruins, struck by the strongest hurricane to overspread the region in at least 123 years; it left 680 people dead and caused catastrophic damage to beaches, forests, and human infrastructure. Also damaged, almost beyond repair, was the reputation of the United States Weather Bureau, whose failure even to hint at the possibility of a violent hurricane constituted as complete and consequential a forecast fiasco as can possibly be imagined.

Not surprisingly, quite a few books have chronicled this critical event over the intervening years. The last decade alone saw the publication of Sudden Sea, by R. A. Scotti (2004), The Hurricane of 1938, by Aram Goudsouzian (2004), and The Great Hurricane: 1938, by Cherie Burns (2006), among others. These monographs present riveting accounts of the storm itself by those who managed to ride it out and describe the storm’s horrible aftermath.

But though often described as natural catastrophes, storms like the 1938 hurricane are in reality the result of human errors of judgment in acknowledging and responding to risks whose existence history makes obvious to all those unwilling to turn a blind eye. New England suffered violent hurricanes in 1635 and 1815, and so any ignorance as late as 1938 of the danger such weather events pose had to be willful. Thus, to truly understand the human impact of storms, it is necessary to place them in the context of historical developments in science, technology, and culture. In this endeavor, Lourdes Aviles’s Taken by Storm, 1938 succeeds brilliantly.

Aviles, a professor of meteorology at Plymouth State University, skillfully interweaves narratives about the meteorological history of the hurricane and its devastating effects on nature and society with expositions on hurricane science and its historical development. She places the event squarely in the context of the rapidly evolving art and science of weather forecasting, showing both how fatal flaws in the science and technology of that era led to the spectacular forecast failure and how that failure catalyzed critical improvements in weather observations and know-how.

Taken by Storm, 1938 begins by setting the historical context of the storm, including the state of the world at the time, and then provides a brief overview of the history of hurricanes in the New World. The state of weather forecasting at the time of the storm is described in chapter 2, which includes prints of some of the weather maps that were actually used in making the historically wrong forecast. The first two chapters set the stage for the book’s second part. Following her contextual synopsis, Aviles weaves together detailed discussions of the science of hurricanes, progress in weather forecasting, a “blow-by-blow” description of the hurricane itself, from inception to final dissipation in Canada, the politics and science surrounding forecasts of the storm, and the devastating impact of the hurricane on the human and natural ecology of Long Island and New England.

The third chapter focuses on the birth of the storm, framing it with what meteorologists currently know about the genesis of hurricanes. This chapter introduces readers to the Beaufort scale and presents a comprehensive timeline of the storm. Aviles follows up with an account of the forecast decisions and advisories issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau as the storm first approached then turned away from Florida, and she also explains the physics of hurricane intensification and maintenance. The behavior of the hurricane in the final hours leading up to its landfall on Long Island is illustrated in chapter 5. That chapter also goes into fascinating specifics about the dilemmas faced by the forecasters who had access to very limited observations of the upper atmosphere, who had little training in the latest advances in dynamic meteorology, and who relied too heavily on the precedent set by hurricanes that historically turned offshore before reaching the Northeast. Aviles attempts to clarify the role of junior Weather Bureau forecaster Charles Pierce, who was alone in his concern that the hurricane, which had been tracked for several weeks, might affect the Northeast.

Chapters 6 and 7 follow the Great New England Hurricane on its rampage through Long Island and New England, illustrating its effects on the region’s totally surprised residents and detailing its impact on beaches, forests, and human infrastructure. The author explains the phenomenon of “extratropical transition” whereby a hurricane—which forms by extracting enormous amounts of energy from warm ocean waters—transforms itself into a nontropical cyclone, sapping energy from horizontal temperature contrasts. She also describes rain-induced river flooding and, perhaps a hurricane’s most lethal component, the storm surge, a tsunami-like flood driven by forceful winds. The horrific aftermath of the storm, attempted relief efforts, and the measures taken by residents to cope with the devastation are highlighted in chapter 8. The book ends by placing the 1938 hurricane in the context of historical hurricanes and storms that have occurred since, including Hurricane Sandy of 2012, and, in the process, it offers recommendations about preparing for future hurricane risks to the Northeast.

Taken by Storm, 1938 is a well-written and engaging account of what was arguably the single greatest natural catastrophe to affect the northeastern United States. The development of modern objective weather forecasting techniques virtually ensures that we will never again be taken completely unaware by a hurricane. Unfortunately, other lessons we might have learned from the tragic events of September 1938—such as not to subsidize development of expensive buildings in vulnerable places—have been ignored at our peril.

—Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializes in the physics of hurricanes and other tropical weather systems. He is the author of Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes.

Environmental History Review

Taken by Storm is the story of the “Great Hurricane” that affected much of New England in September 1938. The narrative is concentrated in both time and space. It focuses mainly on the meteorological development and reactions of the forecasters to the “Great New England Hurricane of 1938.” Most of the text describes the development of the hurricane, from its origin over western Africa, its passage westward over the Atlantic and intensification into a hurricane, to its rapid track up the East Coast. Avilés describes the extreme unexpectedness of the progress of this storm, its unusual northward trajectory, its transition and expansion as it made landfall in New England, and the fact that no such storm had affected that region for nearly seventy years. All of these factors led everyone, from the meteorological forecasters to the public at large, to be taken by surprise, resulting in little or no preparation for the storm and consequent extensive damage and loss of life. Avilés uses both contemporary accounts, taken from meteorological reports, forecasts, weather warnings, and technical analyses of the storm, and the modern tools based on recent reanalysis projects that combine forecasting models and historical weather data to produce coherent views of past weather conditions, in her analysis of the 1938 storm.

This work includes background information on the history of hurricane forecasting in the United States and a careful rebuttal of recent accounts of the forecasting failures in the Washington, D.C., office in September 1938. Much interesting information is given on the background of weather instruments, the development of the upper-air measurements so crucial to accurate forecasting, and brief biographical sketches of some of the forecasters on duty in September 1938. Avilés does an excellent job of entering into the historical context, describing the knowledge possessed by the forecasters of the time, the limitations of the data they had access to, and the current theories and understanding of meteorological processes that led to the catastrophic forecasting failure of this storm. One of the ironies she points out is that thanks to the success of the warnings given by the Jacksonville office, most ships waited out the storm in harbor, resulting in an almost complete lack of meteorological information from ship reports about the progress of the hurricane. The successful forecasting in Jacksonville led to a forecasting failure in Washington.

While one chapter is devoted to the impacts of the hurricane in New England, this is primarily a meteorological account and not a social or intellectual history. Although Avilés describes the dynamics of a hurricane in clear prose, the phenomena remain complex, and some discussion of the more technical elements, such as the effect of wind shear or spatial temperature differentials, may remain difficult for the general reader to follow. Although the book is amply supplied with excellent diagrams, the author may wish to consider adding even more in a later edition, describing concepts such as the climatological background flow for September, warm and cold fronts, and the track of the hurricane over the course of its lifetime estimated using the reanalysis data, which could help the nonspecialist reader’s understanding of some of the concepts that are critically important for the understanding of the narrative. A general difficulty in writing a history of this kind is that three separate strands must be maintained: the historical narrative of the event, an account of the current scientific understanding of the phenomenon under consideration, and a description of the contemporary understanding in the period being considered. Avilés gives very good, well-researched and clear separate accounts of each of these three aspects. Some repetition and cross-referencing result from trying to maintain these three strands simultaneously, occasionally leading the reader into digressions that impede the otherwise absorbing narrative of the 1938 hurricane and the efforts of weather forecasters to predict its course.