Last week, I took a walk in our woods with writer Nicola Smith from the Valley News, our local daily newspaper in Lebanon, NH.
She wrote an insightful story about what we saw. here it is:
A Transformative Storm: Author Describes How the 1938 Hurricane Changed New England’s Forests
By Nicola Smith
Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 10, 2016
(Published in print: Friday, March 11, 2016)
The writer Steve Long likes to walk in the woods. On a balmy afternoon that augurs spring, in marked contrast to the previous day’s snow and raw skies, Long puts on hiking boots, grabs a walking stick and ushers his English spaniel, Woody, out the door.
Behind the house in Corinth that Long shares with his wife, the writer and weaver Mary Hays, there is a good-sized tract of hemlocks, sugar maples, birch and ash, a mix fairly typical of a Northern hardwood forest. The trees march up a steep hillside marked by rocks, knotty tree roots and streams.
Long walks up a logging trail, looking for trees that show clear indications of having withstood the 1938 hurricane, which devastated large swaths of New England and claimed the lives of nearly 700 people, mostly on coastal Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
For the past four years, Long has closely researched the history of the storm called “Thirty-Eight” by the people who lived through it. His recently released book Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England (Yale University Press) is a study of how the worst natural disaster ever to hit the region affected its forests.
As Long ascends a steep south-facing hillside, while Woody clambers over downed tree limbs, nose to the ground, he spots a telltale sign: trees with a noticeable bend in them, as if the trees had grown straight up for about a foot, then suddenly veered right, or to the northwest.
When the hurricane barreled through with 100-miles-per-hour winds on the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938, it knocked down millions of full-grown trees as if they were bowling pins. “If you were a hill facing south or east, you’d be hammered. Facing west was not much of a problem,” Long said.
For younger trees that were lower to the ground and thin in diameter, however, the wind bent but did not snap them completely. Bent nearly parallel to the ground by the force of the winds, the trees, some of which Long has dated to around 1890, would have begun to rebound when the original lead branch, now near the ground, broke off, and a second branch took over. When that second lead branch began to grow straight up, the kink in the lower trunk remained.
The second indication of hurricane damage is the pock-marked, pit -and-mound appearance of the hillside. The pits mark the spot where trees once stood. When the winds uprooted them, they toppled, bringing mounds of earth with them. The trunks and limbs of the trees would have deteriorated fairly quickly, Long said, because once hardwoods come into contact with the ground, the process of rot begins. But the mounds of earth remained.
For people living in coastal Long Island, Connecticut and Rhode Island, the hurricane was an unmitigated calamity. For the forests, it was a sudden reckoning, but it was not, said Long, a catastrophe. Rather, he said, “it was a natural occurrence that would trigger all sorts of new things. It was a change, but not a disaster.”
As a boy growing up in Syracuse, N.Y., Long spent summers in the central Adirondacks. He spends time in the woods, hunts in them, has logged them and knows how to read their terrain as closely as he might read a book. His passion for the woods led him to co-found, in 1994, the Corinth-based magazine Northern Woodlands , which he also edited. He left the magazine in 201 1 .
“I’ve spent last the two decades-plus, learning about and writing about the woods. I found my subject, and it just felt like coming home,” Long said of his decision to delve into the history of the storm.
There have been numerous books about the hurricane, but few, if any, that looked at it from the point of view of the trees. So while the storm wreaked havoc and misery in terms of loss of life, buildings and infrastructure, Long chose to confine the scope of the book to what happened to New England forests, and how they rebounded.
To understand the impact of the storm, you have to shed your assumptions about the kind of 21st century communications that alert humans to disaster. In 1938, Long said, there was no such thing as long-range weather forecasting, there was no radar, there were no satellite communications, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration (NOAA), which issues hurricane warnings, didn’t yet exist. (It was founded in 1970).
Further, New England had experienced in its recorded history only two other hurricanes of comparable magnitude, one in 1635 and another in 1815. Hurricanes were so removed in time from the New England experience that it didn’t occur to most people in the region that they could be hit by one.
Although it seems incomprehensible now, when the hurricane was only hours from landfall at the eastern end of Long Island, no one on shore knew it was coming. There was no advance warning.
Meteorologists had alerted people in Florida that a hurricane was coming. But they assumed that the storm would hit Florida and then wheel out into the Atlantic, as hurricanes often did. Instead, because of a ridge of high pressure to the east and a trough of low pressure to the west, the storm bypassed Florida, drove straight up the Eastern Seaboard at 50 miles per hour and then took a path up the Connecticut River Valley before petering out in Canada.
Ships that might have radioed news of the hurricane’s change in direction were not at sea because they had been warned to avoid the storm. In essence, Long said, the storm was not where forecasters thought it would be, and by the time people realized that, it was too late.
“Instead of a curveball, Thirty-Eight was a tailing fastball,” Long writes in the book.
By the time the hurricane struck Long Island, downing phone and power lines, there was no way to alert the coastal inhabitants of Connecticut and Rhode Island. The only signs of an impending shift in weather were the ones people saw and heard themselves: the wind picking up, the skies changing color, the surf roughening.
In the interior, along the Connecticut River Valley, the trees would have started to sway and toss as the winds rose. To make matters worse, New England had already suffered three days of soaking rain that had saturated the ground and its streams and rivers.
Long interviewed a number of people from Vermont and New Hampshire who remembered Thirty-Eight as clearly as if it had happened the week before.
One man, Fred Hunt, who was 14 and then living in Rindge, N.H., found himself, through a series of circumstances, trying to make his way home just before the hurricane came through. Some trees had already come down, including a huge white pine that straddled a road. With the wind reaching its apex, Hunt made the prudent decision to hide under the pine. When he emerged some 10 to 15 minutes later, every tree wider than 6 inches in diameter was down.
For people who relied on income from woodlots, or were simply accustomed to seeing forest around them, the day after the hurricane would have presented an unimaginable scene. “If you’d lost a lot of trees and walked outside next morning you would have been horrified. You’d think this is the worst thing that ever happened,” Long said.
In comparison to the number of deaths caused by the coastal storm surge, with Rhode Island the most severely affected, the loss of trees was secondary. What is staggering to consider, however, is just how much forest was downed: the estimate is 2.6 billion board feet of wood. (One board foot is 1 foot wide, 1 foot long and 1 inch thick.)
In late 1930s New England, this was equivalent, Long said, to five years of logged wood in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, where the forests suffered the most damage. Although much of New England had been cleared for agriculture in the mid-19th century, forests, in particular white pine, had grown back by the 1930s.
Where the hurricane hit, people experienced an average of five hours of the worst winds and rain. So, Long said, five hours of 100-miles-per-hour wind essentially felled five years worth of harvested logs. In Connecticut, mostly oak, black birch and pine were brought down; in New Hampshire and Massachusetts white pine fell victim; in Vermont maple, beech and birch took the biggest hit. The tree canopy, which reached 80 feet in most places, was reduced to 20 feet.
What happened afterward was almost as remarkable. As part of the New Deal, the government stepped in to salvage and buy the wood. “It could have been an entire loss without the government stepping in,” Long said.
During the Depression, the timber industry in New England was not in robust health. After the hurricane, people found employment working not only for the sawmills that sprang up throughout the region, but also rebuilding bridges, houses, buildings and roads.
At the peak, Long said, there were perhaps 15,000 Works Progress Administration and 5,000 Civilian Conservation Corps workers on the job. Consider also that there were no chain saws then, so all the salvage and logging was done by hand, using axes and cross-cut saws.
While humans understandably tend to think of hurricanes as bad, the long-term ecological effect of Thirty-Eight on New England’s forests was neutral, Long said.
“Ecologically it was a huge, immediate accumulation of the normal. The normal happened all at once. Death is a natural part of life in the forest,” Long said. If 1 percent of forest dies off during a given year, the hurricane brought about a 4 or 5 percent die-off in the span of hours.
There are lessons to be drawn from Thirty-Eight, Long said. How prepared is New England for the next big hurricane that will eventually hit? Tropical Storm Irene caused immense damage, of course, but Long is talking about a much larger hurricane of the same scale as Thirty-Eight.
Humans would now have the advantage of advance notice, thanks to the development of sophisticated weather forecasting. But how would the electronic communications on which we all depend withstand such a storm? In some ways, we are now more vulnerable to such a hurricane, given the interconnectedness of communications and the electric grid.
And given the diminished capacity of the New England timber industry, which has sloughed mills and jobs steadily since the 1970s, where would state and local governments in New England find the infrastructure and personnel to clear downed forests, especially now that woods are even more prevalent in parts of New England than they were in 1938?
The forests themselves offer a lesson. After Thirty-Eight, woods that were left to regenerate on their own, rather than undergoing long-term salvage and burning of downed wood, recovered much more quickly. Fifty years after the hurricane, people walking through Northern New England woodlands would not necessarily know that such a large-scale event had ever occurred, because the woods had grown back.
As far as forests are concerned, humans should resist, if at all possible, the impulse to intervene. Long said. “It’s understandable, but it’s suspect. You’re not doing the forest any good by tidying up. It’s perfectly capable of taking care of itself.”
Steve Long will read from Thirty-Eight: The Hurricane that Transformed New England a t the Norwich Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Wednesday. Reservations are suggested. Call the bookstore at 802-649-1114.
Long will also read at an event sponsored by the Corinth Conservation Commission at 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 19 at Corinth Town Hall.
On Saturday, April 2, he will give a presentation from 2 to 3 p.m. as part of the Vermont Woodlands Association annual meeting at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center. Registration for the meeting is required. For details go to www.vermontwoodlands.org/documents/2016-agenda-registration.pdf.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.