PSU professor chronicles 1938 hurricane and how it laid claim to New England
PLYMOUTH — As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Lourdes Aviles came to know hurricanes, more so than she would have liked.
Now a professor of meteorology at Plymouth State University, Aviles has made a hobby of hurricanes. And one in particular — the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 — intrigued her so much that she just wrote a book about it.
“Taken by Storm, 1938: A Social and Meteorological History of the Great New England Hurricane,” is her first publication.
“Hurricanes are my thing, so when I came to New Hampshire, I started researching,” Aviles said.
“First I found out that hurricanes in New England are rare, and then I found this hurricane, and I kept studying it until I had so much information that I had to put it in a book,” she said.
The 1938 storm was one of six large storms that are believed to have struck New England at full strength (three of which are from prehistoric times). The first great storm on record was in 1635; the second was in 1815.
The 1938 storm, also called the ‘Long Island Express,’ took New England by surprise. It hit New England on Sept. 21, 1938; when it had passed, as many as 800 people were dead.
“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,” she said.
“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,” Aviles said.
The hurricane also devastated the already depressed economic conditions. But lessons were learned from it.
“For the first time, a disaster relief effort was overseen by the federal government,” she said. “Even today, emergency planning in New England refers to this storm as the ‘worst-case scenario’ and uses it as a test for readiness.”
The book, which is published by the American Meteorological Society and is available at bookstores and online, also serves as a warning.
“Nothing has ever compared to that storm, but as bad a storm or worse can happen again here,” she said. “The chances of it are almost non-existent, but if you wait long enough, it will happen again.”