“No one will ever know the strength of the winds in the Great Hurricane of 1938, because they destroyed every instrument designed to measure them.”
— R.A. Scotti, Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938
Like a lot of folks, I love reading scary stories this time of year. Here in Connecticut, the air is crisp and clear, the leaves are changing, and the ghouls & goblins of Halloween are closing down upon us.
It’s also still hurricane season, which is a different kind of horror. What is considered scary reading is sometimes directly related to the reader’s geographical location in relation to the subject matter.
As someone who lives on the Connecticut Shoreline, R.A. Scotti’s SUDDEN SEA: THE GREAT HURRICANE OF 1938 made my guts quiver.
Carved a New Coastline
Sudden Sea is a gripping historical narrative about one of the worst natural disasters in American history and the strongest hurricane ever to hit New England. It literally “carved a new coastline.” This cataclysmic natural event converged with social and economic changes already underway in America. The merger created significant cultural and economic change in New England.
How Do You Pronounce Hurricane?
Scotti explores the conditions surrounding the development of this hurricane — where it started, how it developed, what guided its path, and why it took Long Island and New England by surprise. She tracks the lives and experiences of a handful of individuals, the development of hurricane forecasting, what the hurricane destroyed, and much more.
I was surprised to learn that prior to 1938, there had been only two hurricanes since whites started colonizing New England, one in 1635 and the other in 1815. In 1938, many New Englanders didn’t even know how to pronounce the word hurricane.
Another surprise was that government supported weather forecasting in the U.S. was initially started in order to protect business interests. Scotti writes, “The original U.S. Weather Bureau was chartered by an act of Congress in 1870 and officially designated the Division of Telegrams and Reports for the Benefit of Commerce. As the name implies, it was devised as a tool for trade.” War has also been a catalyst for weather predictions. In January 1938 there were calls for the U.S. Weather Bureau to become a more scientific department. Eight months later, the destruction caused by this hurricane confirmed that need. Scotti does sing the praises of Grady Norton and Gordon Dunn, two weather forecasters in Florida who worked around the clock to track the hurricane in its earliest days.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would be like to live through (or die in) a category 5 hurricane, you’ll want to read this book. Almost 700 people died in this storm (400 in Rhode Island alone). The storm hit Long Island and knocked out communication channels so Connecticut couldn’t be warned, when it hit Connecticut, Rhode Island couldn’t be warned, and so on up through to Canada.
Reading the eyewitness descriptions of the storm surge and how it swept away entire neighborhoods is unforgettable. Rossi, who also wrote fiction, masterfully builds tension for the reader who awaits the unleashing of this storm and then sweeps the reader along in descriptions of its violent arrival in horrific detail. Houses were sucked out to sea with families inside, boats and ships were tossed onto land, bridges were washed out, trains derailed and tracks were bent by the force of the storm surge. Some people “rode” debris to safety, others were crushed or drowned.
Cutting Fingers Off Corpses
As is almost always the case in human tragedy caused by wide-spread disaster, there were helpers, miracles, and bits of humor, as well as horrific behavior both during and after this hurricane. Some of the horrors include a white man who wouldn’t allow a black man into his car to escape the oncoming storm. There was also mass looting that started immediately after the storm. Some people raided stores, others cut off the fingers of corpses to steal rings.
Some other facts & figures:
- 20,000 buildings destroyed
- 75,000 buildings damaged
- 26,000 cars demolished
- So many trees were decimated that it took five years to clear all the downed trees. [Sidebar for Willa Cather fans: After the hurricane of ’38 Cather visited the Shattuck Inn of Jaffrey, NH — a long-time writing oasis for her — less often due to the destruction of the forest that her windows looked out upon (source)]
During the long cleanup period, people couldn’t travel to or from New England by road, train, or boat because the traditional infrastructure was wiped out. As a result, the new transportation option, commercial air travel, boomed. That’s one of the cultural changes mentioned above.
Scotti’s writing style is engaging and straightforward, which was no easy feat considering she’s covering history, science, and human behavior. Her explanations about the science of hurricanes and waves was clear and understandable. The historical tidbits are just that — tidbits that don’t weigh down the narrative but help the reader understand the time period and/or are just some fun facts.
Early in the book, as she’s introducing various characters and setting the scene of 1938, Scotti uses some fictional techniques that I found enjoyable. One example is of Ernesto Gherzi, a Jesuit priest and meteorologist. He was aboard ship coming from Europe to New York during the storm. Apparently in the early twentieth century, Jesuits were “regarded as near-mystical hurricane hunters.” Who knew? But my point here is to share this description:
“Father Gherzi stood watch, as he had done through most of the voyage, in apparent communion with the sea. It was Bible black now, silent and satiny. Black cassock flapping against spindle legs, long, slender fingers clamped on his broad-brimmed cappella, he looked like a strange crow perched on the bridge. Father Gherzi was about six foot four and reed-thin with close-cropped graying hair and a Vandyke beard. He conversed in Latin, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, and a half a dozen other languages with equal ease and possessed a calm containment that quieted the captain’s alarm.”
I was tickled by the description of the Jesuit coupled with that of the sea being “Bible black now, silent and satiny.” But as the storm gets closer and then hits, the narrative is all action.
Bottom line: I highly recommend Sudden Sea to readers who enjoy maritime stories, weather, natural disasters, action & adventure, New England and American history.
Title: SUDDEN SEA: THE GREAT HURRICANE OF 1938
Author: R.A. Scotti. Rita Angelica Scotti passed away in 2010. Her papers are held at Loyola University Chicago. You can read a short biographical sketch here.
Publisher: Back Bay Books / Little Brown and Company, 2003