It could’ve been worse...

As bad as Irene was, the Hurricane of 1938 was even more destructive

BRATTLEBORO — Tropical Storm Irene's devastation has evoked comparisons with other natural disasters to hit Windham County.

As bad as Irene was in parts of the county, it was not nearly as catastrophic as the storm that remains the benchmark for weather disasters in New England - the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

It struck with little warning on Sept. 21, 1938, and by the end of that day, nearly 700 people - almost 400 in Rhode Island alone - died in the storm. Nearly 1,800 were injured.

It's hard to imagine, in our media saturated age, what it must have been like that day to have a storm so deadly and destructive sweep in unannounced. But it did, and those who lived through it would remember it for their rest of their lives.

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September 1938 was a rainy one in Windham County. For five days, from the afternoon of Sept. 17 to the next Wednesday morning, the region saw almost continuous overcast skies and about 7 inches of rain.

The Whetstone Brook flooded Flat, Elm, Frost, and Williams streets, as well as portions of West Brattleboro as it surged past the previous record-setting flood stage of March 1936. The Connecticut and West rivers were rising fast and threatened to top their banks as they had two years earlier.

But while Brattleboro was dealing with flooding on the afternoon of Sept. 21, bigger troubles were just scant hours away.

Earlier that week, ships in the South Atlantic radioed the U.S. Weather Bureau that a large storm was racing across the ocean and was headed for Florida and the Keys. But it shifted course, curving toward the Carolinas.

By 7 a.m. on Sept. 21, the storm passed Cape Hatteras, N.C. Storm warnings were posted along the Eastern Seaboard as far north as Maine, but the Weather Bureau had no idea how big or how powerful a force was about to hit.

There hadn't been a major hurricane in the Northeast since Sept. 23, 1815, and Vermont hadn't seen one since 1788.

In 1938, hurricanes didn't have names. There were no aerial reconnaissance of storms, no radar, no weather satellites. All the Weather Bureau's forecasters had to go on were temperature and barometric readings, observations from other weather stations, and reports voluntarily radioed in from ships at sea.

Even though barometers in the weather offices were measuring barometric pressure at unprecedented low levels, the forecasters figured the storm would turn harmlessly out to sea after passing Cape Hatteras. Instead, it was pushed into a channel formed by two high-pressure areas and headed north at a speed of nearly 60 mph.

This is how one of the deadliest hurricanes of the 20th century struck without warning the 13 million people who inhabited the area between Long Island and Montreal.

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Several factors made this storm deadlier than most. It was coming at high tide and would make its landfall over warm and rain-soaked soil. With the ground saturated and the air warm, this hurricane would maintain nearly its full force all the way to the Canadian border.

Long Island was first to be hit just after 2 p.m. The storm surge - a wave of water 40 feet high - hit with such force that its impact was registered on a seismograph in Alaska.

In just one Long Island town - Westhampton - 153 of the 179 houses there vanished, smashed to bits by the wind and water, leaving 29 people dead in that town alone. If the storm had come three weeks earlier, when the Hamptons were still filled with summer vacationers, thousands more would have died.

The storm then moved across Long Island Sound and smashed into the Connecticut and Rhode Island shorelines around 3 p.m.

In Providence, a 100-foot high wave swept up Naragannsett Bay and crashed into the downtown, drowning pedestrians and drivers trapped in their cars. When the wave receded, downtown Providence was under 13 feet of water.

On the coast, houses and cottages that lined the beaches of villages such as Old Saybrook and Stonington in Connecticut, and Watch Hill and Westerly in Rhode Island, were obliterated. Downtown New London was ablaze, and firefighters could not control the conflagration.

Ships, trees, and telephone poles blocked what was left of the New Haven railroad's Shore Line route - the main rail corridor between Boston and New York City. Tracks were washed out in many places. Not one highway in Connecticut was passable to traffic.

No one knew for certain how hard the wind blew. At the Blue Hill Observatory outside Boston - 90 miles from the storm's center - the wind was measured at a steady 121 mph, with gusts up to 186 mph. Salt spray coated windows as far north as Montpelier, 249 miles north of Long Island Sound.

The storm then swept north up the Connecticut River valley, reaching Brattleboro by late afternoon and, still packing winds well in excess of 100 mph, flattening tobacco barns filled with that year's crop, destroying apple orchards and maple groves, and toppling elms and oaks that had stood for hundreds of years.

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Every stream and river in Windham County was now raging, the result of all the rain that had fallen in the five days before the storm.

The Deerfield River took out a cement bridge in Wilmington. Covered bridges in Newfane, Grafton, Wardsboro, and West Dover were destroyed, and towns such as Windham, Athens, Brookline, and Newfane were isolated for days as roads washed away.

In Brattleboro, four huge trees on Cedar Street were toppled like a row of dominos, one behind the other. Another huge tree crashed into the home of U.S. Sen. Ernest W. Gibson on Oak Street. Chimneys were blown off houses, windows were smashed by flying debris, and parked cars were flattened by fallen trees.

Within the county, there were two deaths: Leonard Whitbeck, 53, of Waban, Mass., who was crushed by a fallen tree in Westminster West, and Roger Miller, a 2-year-old who was swept out of the arms of a rescuer by floodwaters in West Guilford.

By nightfall, the remains of the storm were in Montreal. Hundreds were dead or missing, tens of thousands were homeless, and New England was totally isolated from the rest of the nation.

* * *

The next day was bright and sunny in New England. The weather was the only thing that was normal.

Ten days of frantic labor restored train service between Boston and New York. It was well over a month before normal telephone service was restored; calls from Boston to New York City had to be routed through London.

More than 9,000 homes were destroyed and almost 100 bridges were washed away.

More than 20,000 miles of phone and electric lines were knocked down.

There was more than $6.2 million in damage (more than $15 billion in today's dollars).

It would take close to five years to clear the forests of the estimated 275 million trees - including a third of Vermont's sugar maples - that were toppled.

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Other large hurricanes would strike New England in the 1940s and 1950s, but many lessons of the Hurricane of 1938 prevented death and destruction on the scale of that disaster. Better weather forecasting and monitoring of New England's rivers increased the warning time. Never again would a hurricane or flood catch the region by surprise.

Federal flood control projects tamed the region's major rivers. Dams in North Springfield, Jamaica, and Townshend were built in Vermont, part of a regional network of reservoirs and dams to control the main tributaries of the Connecticut River. Dikes, levees, and floodwalls were built in Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, and Northampton.

But as bad as the flooding was around southern Vermont after Irene, the 1936 flood still holds most the records.

Flood stage on the Connecticut River at the U.S. Geological Survey's observation station in North Walpole, N.H. is 28 feet. On March 19, 1936, the river crested 43.80 feet, which remains the all-time record. The crest at North Walpole was 39.10 feet in 1938. The crest for Irene came on Aug. 29, 2011 at 31.36 feet.

Conversely, two of the local Connecticut River tributaries without flood control dams - the Williams and the Saxtons rivers - shattered the all-time records last year.

The Saxtons River crested at 19.57 feet on Aug. 28, 2011, well above the 10-foot flood stage. Also on that date, the Williams River crested at 17.94 feet, more than double the flood stage of 8 feet.

In the case of Irene, Vermonters knew the storm was coming nearly a week in advance and knew about the heavy rains Irene would bring nearly two days in advance.

Even with Irene fresh in our minds, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 remains an almost mythological event in New England weather lore, and the standard by which all other weather disasters are judged.

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