Book Review--August, 2005
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The Great Hurricane of 1938, or the Long Island Express as this web site has referred to it, was one of the most powerful and deadliest storms of all time. The Weather Channel ranked it as one of the top ten storms of the past century. A very rare Category Three Hurricane that roared up the East Coast of the United States in upwards of 70 mph, the 1938 Hurricane first struck Long Island and then ripped through New England. It is estimated in today's dollars to have caused $4.7 billion dollars in damage, and it left 682 people dead including 433 in Rhode Island.

Long Island Express of 1938 is a fascinating storm, and one that should remind people in the Northeastern United States that major hurricanes can happen here. This review focuses on two books that focus on this particular storm: Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti and The Great Hurricane of 1938 by Cherie Burns. Scotti is a former writer for Providence Journal, who has written a number of novels dealing with mystery and espionage while Burns has written works that have appeared in the New York Times, People, Glamor, Us, Working Women, New York, and others.

Sudden Sea

This book was a fabulous book. I read the entire book in three days, and I usually take much longer to finish an entire book unless it is something dealing with computers such as a manual or how-to book. The tremendous detail and volumes of information presented in Sudden Sea kept me riveted from start to finish. I learned a lot of things that I didn't know about the 1938 Hurricane in this book.

For instance, I discovered that the waves and storm surge associated with the hurricane caused seismic measurements to be recorded on a seismograph in Alaska. There were also other notable hurricanes in the Northeast and New England prior to the 1938 Hurricane including the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 and the Great Hurricane of 1815. It also mentions how the 1815 storm produced the highest storm surge prior to 1938 with 11.6 feet above normal. The 1938 hurricane caused a 17.6 foot surge.

Scotti does a tremendous job of not only presenting the stories of all the families affected by the hurricane, but also explaining how a hurricane forms, the way in which they were forecasted then as supposed to today, and the problems at the Weather Bureau, which by the way, was also a subject of discussion in Erik Larson's book, Isaac's Storm about the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

As a matter of fact, she mentions how the 1938 hurricane led to major changes at the Bureau. She also goes to great length to present the background in which this hurricane occurred with descriptions of world and national events, sports and culture as well as what happened in previous storms such as the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that struck the Florida Keys.

The 1935 hurricane was a contributing factor to the way in which the 1938 hurricane was forecasted, particularly from the Jacksonville, Florida office. The poor forecast of the 1935 storm caused a lot more stress at the Jacksonville office when the 1938 hurricane was still in the Tropical Atlantic, and threatening Florida with Category Five strength winds. And, actually, as it turned out, the Jacksonville office did a good job with the forecast up to a point.

The focal point of the story turned to a forecaster named Charles Pierce in the Washington, D.C. office. Pierce had originally detected something strange was happening with this storm, and felt that the storm was headed in New England rather than out to sea. However, being one of the younger forecasters in the office, Pierce wasn't taken seriously by the more experienced forecasters including the forecaster in charge, Charles Mitchell. Mitchell then took out the word hurricane in several bulletins that were issued on the storm. Mitchell was eventually replaced while Pierce was promoted in the reorganization of the Weather Bureau in the aftermath of the storm.

This book demonstrated a great deal of research that went into it. There is very good explanations of how the hurricane develops, how it moves, what is needed to strengthen it, and what forces were in play when the 1938 hurricane came up the Eastern Seaboard. The author did a tremendous job of giving the reader a basic idea of how hurricanes worked and behaved. Scotti also goes into great detail on how destructive the hurricane was including how the trees were damaged, leaves were stripped from them, sand was stirred up by the wind, the smell of salt pervaded the air for miles, and how people tried to deal with the storm.

Sudden Sea is a book that rivals Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm in terms of its research, detail, and careful explanation of hurricanes to the reader. It is a great book, and I highly recommend it to all the visitors of this site..

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The Great Hurricane Of 1938

Burns starts out in her book on the 1938 hurricane with a curiosity and a fascination about the subject. She admits that she never knew such storms came up the East Coast, and into New England. She thought that they were a phenomena that only Florida and the Southeast dealt with. However, when Hurricane Bob paid a visit to New England in August, 1991, her views changed. Those views continued to change later that year in October when the Perfect Storm, which had a contribution from Hurricane Grace.

Burns would only bring up interesting facts about the 1938 Hurricane to people she would bump into from time to time, and noticed how they didn't seem affected, or were apathetic. Something very important to note because a recent study of New Yorkers stated that 78% of them believed that hurricanes do not happen here. A resident of Nantucket, the author talks about the backdrop in which the hurricane occurred in a similar way that Scotti does in her book, but she goes a bit further by saying that perhaps people don't remember it as much, or know about it because it came at a time when the Munich Agreement was signed, Hitler took the Sudatenland in Czechoslovakia, and Neville Chamberlain declared we would have, "Peace in our time."

While both Scotti and Burns go to great lengths to describe the battle for survival and hardships that many of the people and their families had to endure as a result of the storm, Burns talks a lot more about the situation that occurs in Providence, particularly at some of the local business and newspapers. Scott on the other hand talks more about the school bus tragedy at Jamestown in more detail, especially the controversial aftermath.

Burns also discusses the destruction that occurred on Martha's Vineyard. Scotti does mention that there was little damage in Boston, and that Cape Cod was relatively unscathed by the storm, but she doesn't mention anything about Martha's Vineyard. There are some people and families that both authors interviewed and write about in their books, but there are others that one interviewed and talked about that the other did not.

In other words, while the books are quite similar in their detail and extensive research and knowledge, there are some differences. Another example is how Scotti discusses a great deal about Katherine Hepburn. Not only does she talk about what Katherine Hepburn did the day of the storm, but also what was going on in her life at the time such as her romance with Howard Hughes and the state of her career including her audition for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, and her role in the Philadelphia Story, which with help from Hughes, would help get her career back on track, and on its way to the legendary status it has today. Burns does talk about Hepburn's recollections of that day, and briefly about her life at that time, but not to the extent that Scotti does.

Despite these differences, both books are equally good reads. Burns is also very detailed and descriptive of the death and destruction that occurred on September 21, 1938. Like Scotti, she talks about how a way of life was changed forever by the storm. Not only were lives changes, but the geography of the coastline was altered permanently. Places such as Napatree were wiped out completely. Burns also details how the federal government got involved with many of the Public Works Projects that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt devised in response to the Great Depression that had plagued the country for almost a decade. This was vital in the rapid recovery efforts in the affected area.

I strongly recommend all visitors to this site to purchase both books. As with Scotti's book, I was very drawn in by Burns vivid tale of the storm. Both books are very descriptive, detailed, and well written accounts on a storm that seems to slipped under many peoples radar over the years. Perhaps it was the fact that the world was headed to war, and the infamous Munich Agreement stole much of the headlines and people's attention.

Or maybe it was the fact that media coverage that we see today with such storms as Hurricane Katrina, which recently devastated the Gulf Coast including New Orleans, is much more intense than it was back then. Regardless, these books paint a vivid picture in our minds of what this storm did to such a point that we can actually compare it to the devastation we are currently seeing in the aftermath of Katrina.

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