PLYMOUTH — On the morning of September 21, 1938, people throughout the northeastern United States awoke to a dim red sky and high humidity. Weather reports gave no indication of severe weather; there was no such thing as weather satellites, computer modeling or any other modern day forecasting technology. From the bustling streets of Portland, Maine to the bucolic potato fields of Long Island, New York, people began their day with no indication that the most severe weather event in their lifetimes was about too unfold, leaving nearly 700 dead and the equivalent of more than $4.5 billion in damage that would impact the region for decades.
The '38 Hurricane is considered the most powerful and deadliest hurricane in recent New England history, and Plymouth State University Associate Meteorology Professor Dr. Lourdes Avilès has authored a book, Taken by Storm, 1938: A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane, that provides a comprehensive picture of a devastating weather event that impacted millions of lives.
"I'm a teacher, and I am excited to share both the knowledge and the understanding of how this happened and what we've learned," Avilès said.
American Meteorological Society Executive Director Keith Seitter calls the book a 'must-read' for those interested in severe weather and its historical consequences.
"There are important scientific and societal lessons to be learned from The Great New England Hurricane and Lourdes Avilès has captured them in this one-of-a kind reference work about the worst natural disaster ever to strike New England," Seitter said. "What strikes me about Taken By Storm 1938 is how far our community has come in the monitoring and prediction process in the past 75 years; one could never imagine a similar scenario today in terms of the total lack of warning, but we know from Sandy and Hurricane Katrina that even with good warnings these events can be disasters."
Avilès contends the biggest difference between today's forecasting and 1938 is the observation network; knowing where a potentially dangerous storm is and what it is likely to do.
"Our observation capabilities were very different then; computers didn't exist, there were no satellites, most of our information about threatening hurricanes came from people on ships," Avilès said. "So, depending on how many ships at sea happened to find themselves in the path of a hurricane, there could be very little information to communicate to the public. Today, we have a lot of observations, upper air weather observations that tell which way currents are blowing... we also have very sophisticated hurricane forecasting computer models, so not only do you have the current position and current conditions, you also have a very good idea of which way it's going."
Avilès added that the Hurricane of 1938 also prompted changes in warning the public about potentially severe weather.
"Back then, they didn't put out a warning until the hurricane was already starting. Even if they knew a hurricane was coming, they would hold off the warnings until they were absolutely certain and it was already happening. There were no evacuations plans, emergency planning was not well-developed either, so basically people did what they could when the storms came, so it was very different," Avilès said.
"For the first time, a disaster relief effort was overseen by the federal government," she added. "Even today, emergency planning in New England refers to this storm as the 'worst case scenario' and uses it as a test for readiness."
As a cautionary note, Avilès believes another hurricane of 1938-like intensity will someday strike New England.
"A storm like this will happen again, and the damage it causes will probably happen again, but something that will not happen again is having a storm like this come unannounced so the great loss of life is highly unlikely."
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.
In addition to her faculty responsibilities at Plymouth State University, Avilès is a member of the AMS History Committee on the History of Atmospheric Science and the AMS Board on Higher Education.