Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Great Hurricane of 1938

So I recently acquired the Complete National Geographic Collection on DVD. That's right, at my finger tips I have access to over 1,400 issues, 200,000 photographs, and 8,000 articles. Everything the magazine has published since 1888. For those of you who know me, you might imagine that I've been squirreled away learning all sorts of interesting facts.

With the sounds of Hurricane Irene outside my window right now, I could think of nothing better to do (while I still have power) but to explore another storm that passed overhead 73 years ago. The New England Hurricane of 1938 made landfall as a category 3 hurricane on September 21 on Long Island and made its way through New England. It was estimated that some 682-800 people lost their lives, 57,000 homes were destroyed, and $41.1 billion dollars (2011 value) of damage was caused.

The April 1939 edition of National Geographic details the beginning of the storm. "Hordes of salps, strange soft-bodied creatures from far out to sea, swarmed into the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, one September day, and brought an early "forecast" of New England's hurricane of September 21, 1938. When the brewing storm was still down near the Equator, some force associated with it already was pushing surface waters of the open ocean quietly in toward the North Atlantic coast, 3,000 miles away. Vast numbers of the salps, carried shorward by the influx of the waters, thus gave scientists in Canada an advance hint of what was going on."

Imagine that--the first hint of the storm to come came from fish observed in Canada. In this new world of supercomputer-powered forecasts, satellite tracking, and 24 hour news coverage I knew about the potential of Hurricane Irene last week. I've been preparing for the reality of Hurricane Irene since Friday. Today I can click on a helpful graphic provided  my my local newspaper and get predictions of hourly windspeeds. With all this advanced notice I knew to lash down everything outside that might go airborne, I knew to purchase enough food and supplies should the power go out, and I knew to charge my lap top, my wireless 4G card, and various battery backups around the house so I can do what whatever is required of me.

What it would have been like in 1938. No supercomputers. No satellites. No advanced warnings--except for the fish. Fish and our five senses. "There were ominous signs. People noticed that the air was unseasonably hot and muggy. Their ears felt queer, because the atmospheric pressure was decreasing.... A man who had seen hurricanes before warned his neighbors, but they only laughed at him. Far up in Vermont people noticed a smell of the seashore in the air."

The photo of the four women working at the phone company makes for an interesting view of what technology was. Despite the advent of computer telephone switching, mobile phones, and battery backups our links to the outside world remain just as tenuous as they were in 1938.

The 1939 edition of National Geographic went on noting that  "no one suspected then that this hurricane, forming so far away, would strike northward at New England, turn time backward a generation or more for seven million people overnight, and bring changes ranging from recasting shore lines to altering the courses of men's lives.... The hurricane was to demonstrate how a great, close-packed, highly industrialized modern civilization can be crippled almost in an hour when struck on its "Achilles hell" of electric light and power--and how human energy, Yankee ingenuity, and the New England conscience can rise to defeat disaster"

Like in 1938, we are still likely to be thrown back into another era of life should the power go out. My battery backups will eventually fail and I shall resort to candles for light and fire to cook (that propane fired camping stove has so many uses!). Similarly, like in 1938, we still will rely on Yankee ingenuity. Should Irene cut out our power, or blow apart pieces of our house, I wonder how I'll put my Yankee ingenuity to the test with the miles of duct tape I bought?

Again, technology has brought a new level of security, yet that security is just as frail as it was in 1938.

My last thought before I end comes from this part of the article. In discussing the hurricane, the author of the National Geographic article wrote "It was to destroy valued relics of New England's proud history, but it made that same history live with new vividness as people actually went back to candles for light, fireplaces for cooking, and even community barn-raising to replace storm flattened structures.

The barn-raising made me think of some articles I've read in the news over the last couple of days. It made me think of where our community and values are today, and where they were 73 years ago. Some of the republicans in Congress, led by house majority leader Eric Cantor, are attempting to pin disaster relief funds to their political goals. Cantor believes that disaster relief should only happen if it is accompanied by budget cuts elsewhere.

This sounds great on paper--especially if you are reading that paper somewhere where your roof hasn't been blown off. Tell that to the family in Virginia that had a tree crash through their roof and kill their 11 year old child. It wouldn't sound so great to them. Cutting the budget somewhere to pay for disaster relief sounds great if you have electricity to cook your food, or power to run your business. It doesn't sound all that great when you are eating cold canned beans, or unable to work because your business has been washed away by your ocean.

Community barn-raising. Yankee values. American values. Helping your neighbor out in times of need. Opening your heart, your home, and your wallet for those who are suffering and for those who are devastated. We've done this for generations in the United States. It is part of who we are.

Shame on Cantor for wanting us to become someone else--a people who lets our own neighbors suffer through disaster. A people who let our neighbors go hungry while we squabble of political ideologies.

No comments:

Post a Comment