What we saw was what we got

March 20th, 2014 by Lynn

    “Taken By Storm — 1938” is the detailed account of the hurricane that devastated much of New England in 1938. The author, Lourdes B. Aviles, remembered growing up in Puerto Rico as a young girl extremely interested in hurricanes, which were quite frequent. Now, she is professor of meteorology at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, a state that was particularly stricken by that particular storm.

    The author says the word hurricane is derived from a Spanish word, “huracán,” which, in turn, was a phonetic spelling of a word the West Indian tribes had for the deity that brought terrible storms to their islands. Their word for that deity was “Jurakan,” which the author says is pronounced “hoo-rah-kahn.”

    As you might guess from the author’s professorship, her book is not only an account of that storm’s effects, but also of the condition of the official weather forecasting system in those years.

    In the first place, the forecasting personnel were in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was only in later years that they were transferred to the Commerce Department. Information for farmers had been one of their principal tasks, but, by 1938, the airline industry had become very interested in what sort of weather their planes would be flying in. Instrument flying was in its infancy, and pilots had to operate a lot by sight alone.

    There was no such thing as satellite observation, and weather conditions at sea had to come largely from what was reported from ships in any particular neighborhood.

    While Weather Service headquarters were in Washington, where part of the Atlantic seaboard was monitored, there were subordinate offices in Jacksonville, Fla., and in Puerto Rico.

    The general reader of this book would be advised not to shudder at the occasional scientific references that are of interest to meteorology students mostly. For instance, this footnote:

    “One hectopascal equals 100 pascals. A pascal is the international unit of pressure, equal to a Newton per square meter or a kilogram per meter second squared.”

    In 1938, when the Weather Service spoke of a tropical storm, it often meant a storm that had originated in the tropics. In mid-September 1938, Jacksonville reported such a storm out in the Atlantic headed in a northwest direction, which meant it was headed toward Florida. People in that state had experience with hurricanes and began to think of boarding up their facilities. But much to their relief, it swung north. The author says it achieved a northward speed of 50 mph, which is pretty fast for such a disturbance.

    The Washington office thought the storm would follow the customary path of veering eastward before landfall. But during that season, the Bermuda high to the east was especially strong, and a special low-pressure system over the Alleghenies tended to attract the storm in a northward direction. So on Sept. 21, it slammed into Long Island, crossed Long Island Sound and punched into Connecticut, continuing through central Massachusetts and into New Hampshire and Vermont.

    The author makes clear that one reason for the extensive flooding was not so much because of the rain the hurricane brought as that the ground had already been soaked by a summer of extensive rainfall. She likens it to what happened more recently with Tropical Storm Irene.

    Trees were flattened, including several hundred thousand maples. There was an extensive forest of white pines west of Keene, N.H., that was completely flattened.

    My family had a farm in Londonderry in the northwest corner of Windham County. Because that area was on the west side of the counter-clockwise hurricane motion, the wind came out of the northeast. It blew hard with occasional stronger gusts, one of which blew over an apple tree in our yard, moved our woodshed back 4 feet and left a trail of downed timber in the woods in back of the house.

    While working outside to save the barn and other buildings, my mother exclaimed that she could taste sea salt in the rain. And when things cleared in a day or two, the east windows of the Vermont State House in Montpelier were found to be plastered with sea salt.

    Of course, power and phone service were completely out. Our farm was heated by two woodstoves, one in the kitchen on which my mother also cooked and the other in the living room. So, in that respect, we were better off than many, but it was a long time before electricity and phone service came back.

    The Weather Service took criticism afterward for not warning more strongly about the storm. The author of this book does a good job of explaining why it wasn’t carelessness that was at fault, but lack of equipment to assess developments.

    Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.

    PSU professor honored for book on Great Hurricane of ‘38

    February 7th, 2014 by Lynn

      PLYMOUTH — An international atmospheric research group has recognized Plymouth State University Meteorology Professor Lourdes Avilés with their 2013 Choice History Award for her book about the Great Hurricane of 1938, “Taken by Storm, 1938: A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane.”

      The Atmospheric Science Librarians International presented their award to Avilés at the American Meteorological Society Meeting Feb. 5 in Atlanta.

      “I am honored and incredibly excited to receive this recognition,” said Avilés. “I am lucky to work at such a supportive University that not only allows me the freedom to pursue my scholarly passions but also celebrates them. Receiving an international award from the Atmospheric Science Librarians association means a great deal to me.”

      “This award honors the best book of 2013 relating to historical aspects of meteorology/ climatology/atmospheric sciences,” said Christine Sherratt, chair of the Choice History award selection committee. “It was chosen for its comprehensive account of this major storm, from its inception to aftermath.”

      In writing the book, Avilés described the meteorological conditions that led to the storm, New England’s worst natural catastrophe, as well as comparing the forecasting and warning methods used in 1938 to modern day technology such as weather observation networks based on satellites, sophisticated hurricane forecasting computer models and mass media communication warning about potentially severe weather.

      The book focuses on what actually occurred 75 years ago as the powerful storm shot north toward a densely populated area that was unprepared.

      As a result of what became known as the Great New England Hurricane, weather forecasting, meteorology, and storm preparation, already in transition, were radically transformed.

      “The hours of researching, studying and integrating hundreds and hundreds of sources in building the story behind the hurricane was truly worthwhile,” Avilés said.

      “Students were fortunate to work with Professor Aviles as she produced this landmark study of a storm that people across New England still discuss,” said PSU President Sara Jayne Steen. “The book offers an insightful analysis of the science and also of the human side of what occurred, as resilient New Englanders endured disaster and met challenges with courage.”

      “Taken by Storm, 1938: A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane” is published by the American Meteorological Society and is available at bookstores and online.

      Avilés is a member of the AMS History Committee on the History of Atmospheric Science and the AMS Board on Higher Education.


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