EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 30, 2006

Hurricane of 1938:Memories of the last big one

By Courtney Paquette

Marilyn Ham remembers coming home on the school bus on Sept. 21, 1938. The bus was pulling up in front of her home when all of a sudden, the winds started to pick up. She pushed her face toward the window, and saw a giant Elm tree fall right in front of the bus, blocking the road.

"My friend was scared to death," said Ham, who was 12 years old at the time and sharing a seat with her friend, Mercedes. "It was wild. This storm was not predicated. And it came up very quickly."

Ham, who now lives in Londonderry, said she and her friend ran off the bus and into her Holyoke, Mass., home.

The hurricane of 1938 had hit.

One of the most devastating hurricanes in New England's history was the unnamed storm of 1938. Packing winds of more than 111 miles per hour when its eye passed over Providence, R.I., the storm maintained its Category 3 strength as it traveled into Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Nearly every town in both states felt its effects.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the hurricane of 1938 killed 600 people in New England and New York and caused $6 billion in damage, adjusted for inflation.

Richard Holmes, the town historian for Derry, said experts predicated that the hurricane would curve out to sea, not affecting the East Coast. But it didn't, and continued north - slamming into the region without any time to warn residents.

Elliot Parsons, 81, of Derry, was 14 years old and living in Gloucester, Mass., when the 1938 hurricane hit. He said he was driving along the coast in Gloucester with his father, who was a reporter. All of a sudden, he said the storm surge sent the ocean flying over the seawall. His father jerked the wheel and swerved the car to avoid getting hit. But the car behind him wasn't so lucky - and was hit by the wave.

"It tipped the car right over," he said.

Ralph Bonner, 89, of Derry, was living in Somerville, Mass., when the hurricane hit. He remembers the roof of the church he was walking by blowing off.

"Most of it was wind," he said. "It was just a bad storm."

Holmes said the storm hit New Hampshire around 4 p.m., paying a visit to Salem first. At Rockingham Park, the winds lifted jockey Warren Yarberry off his horse Singing Slave, according to track spokeswoman Lynne Snierson. She said track announcer Babe Rubenstein's booth was blown off the top of the grandstand.

Holmes said the Derry News reported that "trees a century old fell right and left before the might of the wind, carrying down power, light and telephone lines and causing untold damages to roofs chimneys, windows and other property."

And if the same storm were to hit today, it could be even worse.

"The population is greater and more people are at risk," said Dr. David Brown, New Hampshire's climatologist. "And we'd certainly have longer and more damaging power outages in terms of economic impact."

NOAA's Web site estimated a hurricane like 1938 would cost New England $23 billion in damages.

But in other ways, Brown said New England would be better prepared.

"The quality of our building is better and certainly forecasts are better, so we would have much greater warning time," he said.

And some of the more humorous memories of 1938 might be the same.

"My mom had a line, and it had a mop over it," said Chester Ham, 76, of Londonderry, who was 8 years old when the hurricane hit. "(I remember) mom's mop blowing away."