Lasting Lessons From the Hurricane of '38

Jun 14, 2016

Forest damage from the hurricane of 1938.
Credit Forest History Society

On September 21, 1938, New England was slammed by a hurricane that remains the most damaging weather event to ever hit the region. The category 2 hurricane hit New England moving fifty miles per hour, and plowed a path straight up the Connecticut River valley to Vermont. Arriving at high tide, and on the heels of an unrelated rain storm, it caused extensive coastal and inland flooding. Hundreds were killed, and the damage - largely uninsured - cost the equivalent of $5 billion to repair.

“We experienced Irene in 2011. It was catastrophic flooding," says Stephen Long, author of Thirty Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England. "'38 was every bit as much flooding but with 100-mile-an-hour winds."

While hurricanes have become a regular - if not routine - part of life along New England's coasts, '38 was Vermont's first and only experience with a category 2 hurricane. It wreaked havoc on forests that were, in many cases, re-emerging after more than a century of widespread clearing for agriculture.

“White pine is a tree that seeds in really beautifully on farm land that is no longer being cut for hay or pasture," explains Long. "These forests were full of white pine. It’s particularly vulnerable to high wind. It’s shallow-rooted and very tall. Just like a sail.”

Thirty Eight took down an estimated billion trees, mostly white pine. The damage was patchy - not one large swath, but small to mid-sized areas that added up to some 600,000 acres across five states.

One account of the dramatic scene comes from Fred Hunt, who was a 14-year-old boy during the hurricane. He was walking down a small Vermont road when the hurricane hit its full strength. A huge pine tree fell across the road and was propped up on one end by a stone wall. Hunt took shelter in the space where the tree was resting on the wall.

“And the forest just blew down all around him,” in the span of just five to ten minutes, says Long.

Storm damage isn't an ecological crisis, in itself, but the downed trees presented human risks on multiple fronts. Fear of wildfire spurred an immense cleanup effort. But the downed trees were the equivalent of five years of logging harvest - in effect, the bank accounts of those who owned them. The could neither afford to leave them laying there, nor to sell them all at once. 

“If market forces were left to be in place," Long explains, "then nobody would have gotten a nickel for this wood because there was a tremendous glut.”

But this was the end of the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration created the Northeast Timber Salvage Administration. It was able to get set up in six weeks and started buying logs from people at six hundred sites around New England.
 
The effects of both the hurricane and the clean-up can still be seen in today's forests. Erosion wasn't as bad as one might expect as a result of widespread clear-cutting. But removing the dead trees robbed the forests of part of their natural recovery process - the nutrients and habitat that dead wood provides. And the fact that the trees blew over, rather than being snapped or cut off, is visible today in what Long calls pit-and-mound topography.
 
“The roots come out of the ground and by coming out of the ground it excavates a hole, a pit," says Long. "It deposits it adjacent to that pit. You get this hummocky, hillocky, kind of topography.”

There is more forest land in Massachusetts now than at any other time in the past two hundred years. And less of it is white pine than was the case in 1938. But, as climate change amps up storm activity, the chances of another hurricane like '38 increase. And forests are vulnerable.
 
“There’s not much we can do,” he says. “When faced with something of this nature, we have to accept our powerlessness."

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