Thursday, March 08, 2007

Storm of the (Last) Century

The Great Hurricane of 1938, by Cherie Burns, Read by Anna Fields, Blackstone Audiobooks, Inc., 2005

Cherie Burns begins her book The Great Hurricane of 1938 by mentioning how she had never known about it previously and then in rapid succession heard about it from two or three older people then read Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm where he, too referenced it. I also had no knowledge of the events of that year in New England, then suddenly I ran across five or six references to the hurricane in various places. About a week later, I’m standing at the library and staring me right in the face is Burns’ book.

Well, that was propitious enough of a sign for me, so I grabbed it up and listened to it promptly. Burns has a lovely approach in her book; having found several families of survivors and having scoured the archives, she presents her material in a personal and up-close fashion that has the effect of really putting some life into a history. While Jungers’ book is often cited as a model, I found his account rather too efficient, rather too dry and scientific, and I never really got close to the victims or the survivors of that particular storm.

Burns’ account, however, is filled with the kind of tiny details, the kind of little miniature portraits, that have a vigor and a vibrancy. When she tells late in the book of a family looking out the second story window of their house and seeing waves crashing against it, I felt an inherent panic for their sakes. My heart truly raced.

Early on, though, Burns asks the interesting question of what is it about disasters we find so fascinating. It’s a good question. Prior to Katrina, when I heard there was a hurricane heading toward Louisiana, I felt, as I always do when there are impending storms of significant size, a kind of adrenaline-rush excitement at looming danger. I’ve felt the same but even more intensely when I’ve been in particularly bad storms myself, so it wasn’t merely vicarious thrills.

Subsequently, when the scope of the disaster which befell New Orleans was made apparent, I felt terrifically, enormously guilty for my thrilled sensations, but I can’t forget that disaster excitement. Burns at the very least mitigated some of my guilt by acknowledging that she too, and others, experience a similar charged emotion, a kind of hyper-awe in the face of what nature can do.

Burns sets the scene for the book by giving us a thumbnail of the times, Ivory Soap as radio’s leading advertiser, Orson Welles freaking out the yokels with “War of the Worlds,” MovieTone Newsreels, Depression mindsets giving rise to thrift and simplicity, informed citizens being alarmed by developments in Germany, etc. It’s a nicely done, succinct set up, though if you’re not previously a little familiar with the 30s it may seem a little too fragmentary.

What this prepares us for is how we tend to forget, in our era of twenty-four-hour news channels and satellite imagery, how unprepared you could be for such a storm. GH38 built up in the Gulf area, where most do in the Northern hemisphere, it was sighted by a Brazilian fisherman and a cruise liner, then built up enormous strength and sprinted 700 miles in less than 24 hours. As Burns points out, the New Englanders were quite literally caught by surprise. While Katrina has demonstrated that it’s still possible to be stunned by a storm’s ferocity (and by bureaucratic unpreparedness), it is now highly unlikely the nation could be so oblivious.

Having set the stage with the more innocent times and their primitive weather forecasting, Burns then moves on to introducing us to the families affected, generally average folks to slightly upper middle class. While much of the homes affected were summer homes, these were typically the modest bungalows of thrifty New England families, a few scant miles from their houses in the cities. Even the cameo appearance of Box Office Poison Katherine Hepburn herself doesn’t jar the book’s note of reader identification and adds a touch of celebrity spice to the tale.

If there was one overwhelming belief going in to the Great Hurricane of 1938, it is encapsulated in this somewhat ironic conversation when the mother of the Jeffery Moore family is explaining severe weather to her daughter. “What’s a typhoon?” the daughter asks, then after she gets her answer, “What’s a hurricane?” The mother explains only to end by comforting her daughter, “We don’t hurricanes in New England.”

“We don’t get hurricanes in New England” could have been stitched on samplers and embroidered throw pillows up and down the Rhode Island coast prior to 1938, though in fact a few storms sizable enough to qualify had passed through in previous years. Burns catalogs these and makes clear that both their relative mildness in comparison as well as the lack of any well-defined national weather standards go a long way toward explaining the amnesia toward these storms.

One of the more interesting characters we are introduced to is Mabel Burkhardt, the nation’s first female race car driver. An athletic type, she and her husband, an engineer, were severe weather aficionados. The morning of the storm, with the tennis match they expected to watch cancelled, the two of them sat out on their summer cottage’s sun porch to watch the rising waves and squalls. Little do they know what the storm has in store for them or just how much their athleticism will be tested for them to survive.

Meanwhile at Katherine Hepburn’s as a handyman is there nailing boards over the screens, right in front of everyone as they watch him, his car is blown completely over by the winds. Unsurprising as the storm winds hit land on Long Island at 68mph, the fastest recorded hurricane winds. “The element of surprise was as deadly for coastal New England as the strength of the storm itself,” Burns and the unfolding events make clear.

When the storm does hit, it hits with such rapidity and such force that even as people are caught in the middle of it, they still can’t bring themselves to believe it is as bad as it is, until it’s too late. Keep in mind that the combined force of the nuclear arsenals of American and Russia are insufficient to keep a hurricane powered for one day. Add to that that GH38 hit at day time high tide as well as during the equinox when tides are typically higher anyway leading to waves of truly astonishing heights.

Houses collapse from the force, neighborhoods are completely decimated, waves push cars off roads and strand trains on the tracks. Burns knows how to tell a story with great tension, shifting back and forth to each of the families she follows, and we listen with great terror and sympathy to people who turn small docks into boats to ride out the storm or who climb up on to their roofs.

There are amazing on the ground reporting such as when derailed train passengers get out of a car just before it is hit by a schooner or when a man, seeing a baby doll floating by, reaches out for no good reason and scoops it out of the water, only to discover it was, in fact, a baby whose life he just saved.

And of course, tragedy is inevitable, despite moments such as this. Consider the horror, if you will, of the Jamestown schoolbus full of children who, while trying to escape, were lifted by a wave, tossed scrabbling on to the bus’ roof, before being washed out by a second wave. All while their parents stood watching, stranded further away.

And almost as quickly as it had come, the storm passed. As hurricanes hit land, they cease picking up water, and of course rainfall ceases, speeds decrease, and the storm dissipates itself. Having crashed against the coast, the rage and fury it brought with it is spent. What they leave in their wake is another matter.

Perhaps one of the most disheartening things for survivors was how after the storm dissipated rivers taking in much of the wash flooded their banks and washed away remaining weakened bridges, homes, and other such structures. Even trees that survive the high winds and the severe burning of brine spray suffer in the aftermath, the land so saturated with salt water rain that many of them die as though in a drought.

When the federal government hears of things, WPA spending caps are lifted and the Roosevelt administration hires any able bodied male who wishes to work at a rate considerably higher than normal daily wages. To read that and to cast the mind back once more to Katrina is a compare and contrast in liberal and conservative ideologies of governmental responsibility to its citizens in the wake of natural disaster.

However, the quick coming of the war in Europe the very next year brushed away the story, leaving it only in the memories of survivors, a story that died in the shadows. Reconstruction went on, but the nation’s eyes were fixed elsewhere, the Great Hurricane of 1938 becoming a local story before finally falling too from its front pages.

Burns book is a fascinating account, a kind of street level view of the disaster, that at the same time manages to take in the storm’s magnitude and effect. To read her work has the feeling of sitting down with your grandmother and her friends and suddenly learning of what exciting lives they all had once upon a time. It’s revelatory and familiar at the same time, a sleeper of a book that just happens to be a harrowing adventure story too..

Anna Fields reads and avoids the tempting mistake of trying to provide the listener with quaint Yankee accents, even when she’s handed Katherine Hepburn on a silver platter. That alone is worth the price of admission.

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