As I finished reading Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, Hurricane Isabel was spinning toward the Carolina Coast. I thought of the differences between the approach of this storm and the Great Hurricane of 1938, which arrived in southern New England on September 21, almost unannounced and definitely unexpected by most coastal residents. Hurricane Isabel receives as much media attention as a new presidential candidate and its every movement viewed by a paparazzi of weather satellites. The Great Hurricane wasn't even called a hurricane in the last weather advisory and was essentially out of sight and mind. Bad enough the storm's track and strength were wrongly forecast, the storm was not even tracked as it raced northward at record speed toward Long Island and the southern New England Coast after leaving the coastal waters east of Florida.
Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R. A. Scotti provides an interesting account of this storm drawn upon newspaper accounts, personal testimony of survivors, and archival sources and set within the stage of the times. When the hurricane struck, it hit the New England coast with such intensity that seismographs in Alaska registered the impact. Winds, gusting to 186 miles per hour and clocked at 122 mph, blew beach houses away like matchboxes, and a fifty-foot storm surge swept homes and entire families off the beach zone. (Those with shore-front properties on the East Coast should take special note of the storm's impacts.) Inland, it destroyed thousands of acres of valuable forests.
There were early moments when the author dipped into the science of hurricanes and storm forecasting when I did cringe a bit at the science, a frequent reaction to many such books as my regular readers will know. Fortunately, the feeling did not last, and I put the problem areas down more to poor paragraph structure than lack of understanding. First, the Saffir-Simpson hurricane rating scale was not introduced until the early 1970s. This was not mentioned, and the description of the early stages of the Great Hurricane as a Category 5 storm set to strike Miami gives the impression the scale was in use in 1938. The author also suggests that plastic sheeting, ice cubes and nuclear devices had been used in attempts to modify hurricanes. While these actions had been put forward as a possible means to deter or weaken a hurricane, neither had ever been actually tried. (Actually, the inclusion of the concept of seeding storms is, in my opinion, out of place in this history as the first suggestions did not arise until the post-war years.)
Despite those moments, I thoroughly enjoyed Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 and rate it among the best and most balanced of the recent spate of weather history books. Overall, this book read quickly and easily, almost like a novel, yet the author did not overindulge in imaging the agony of those directly affected by the storm. I thought the inclusion of the recollections of Katherine Hepburn whose family had a summer home on the Connecticut shore, an interesting spice to the tale which Scotti, like a master chef, used in just the right amount to not be overpowering.
I recommend Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti for your autumn reading list and weather history library shelf.
Weather Doctor's Book Review: Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 ©2003, Keith C. Heidorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved.
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