A Tale of Two Hurricanes

The images are stunning and sobering: water flooding New York City streets, beach houses ripped from their foundations, boats bashed by ferocious waves.

The footage is black-and-white. The storm is the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, nicknamed “The Long Island Express.” Without warning, at 2:30 p.m. on September 21, the Category 3 storm that forecasters thought would veer out to sea south of Nantucket smashed into Long Island’s southern shore, bringing 40-foot waves, death and destruction in a path that stretched across Long Island Sound, along the Connecticut coast and Narragansett Bay, then northward—straight over Worcester, Mass., and up the New Hampshire-Vermont border.

“Buildings were partially collapsed,” reported the Worcester Gazette, “roofs ripped off, church steeples toppled, store fronts blown out, trees uprooted, chimneys leveled, signs torn down and the streets littered with glass, tree branches and other debris. There were dangling live wires in many sections. Telephone and electric service, affecting lighting and radio went out of commission.”

With Worcester’s trees, the hurricane was ruthless. In just three hours, the storm downed 3,931 street trees and 11,189 trees in city parks and playgrounds—roughly a third of an estimated 50,000 public trees throughout the city. Thousands of others suffered torn and broken limbs. Working day and night, men from the federal Works Progress Administration helped clear homes and pubic buildings of dangerous branches and fallen trees, but the full repairs would take years. Overwhelmed by the arduous task of recovering from the storm’s damage, Parks and Recreation Executive Director Thomas E. Holland had a “breakdown” and took a six-month leave of absence.

By the weekend, the hurricane’s death toll neared 700, many from Long Island and southern New England. Another 700 were injured. Thousands of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed, as well as ships, railroads and farms. Damages totaled $306 million, the equivalent of $18 billion today.

The full impact of this week’s devastation from Hurricane Sandy has yet to be determined. Images of flooded subway stations in Manhattan, decimated homes in New Jersey, pulverized beachfronts, roofs caved by fallen trees and fires sparked by downed wires crowd the airwaves and the Internet. Millions are without power in the nation’s most concentrated population center. Thousands of businesses are shuttered. The NYC Transit system is out of commission.

Bloomberg Businessweek estimates the cost of physical damage from Sandy will exceed $20 billion. Then there is all the speculation about lost output, perhaps a $25 billion loss for the U.S. economy in the fourth quarter.

By all those measures, as well as the superstorm’s sheer scope and size, Sandy seems to have lived up to predictions that it would outdo its 1938 predecessor—until this week, the worst storm ever to hit the East Coast.

But there is one very important difference. As of Wednesday morning, at least 46 people have died in the storm—46 people too many, but nowhere near the death toll from the ’38 Hurricane. Modern weather forecasting, advanced crisis planning, improved communications, better emergency response—all contributed to preventing Sandy from becoming an even more overwhelming disaster. With extreme weather becoming the new normal, that is something deserving our civic support and deep gratitude.

Evelyn Herwitz is the author of  Trees at Risk: Reclaiming an Urban Forest and blogs about ALB prevention and tree stewardship at treesatrisk.com. She predicted the 2008 Asian Longhorned Beetle infestation of Worcester, Mass., in her book, published by Chandler House Press in 2001.