My Mother’s Hurricane

The North American Review

Too few new parents pause to consider that if they choose for their offspring a name beginning with any letter after about M, the child will never be namesake to a hurricane. I, personally, am gratified that when the Weather Service named a hurricane Diana, it was a good one. No child named Simon or Patricia will ever have that satisfaction since hurricane namers begin every season with A, and by the time they get to Manuel, Nanette, or Orenthal, it’s December and that’s that.

They started naming hurricanes after the big one in ’38, partly because people had not paid much attention to a kind of storm long presumed likely merely to hit Florida, where very few people actually lived before the invention of air conditioning. Only when a hurricane hit Connecticut did it become clear that these were storms worth naming. The Weather Service took the idea from George Stewart, who wrote a best-selling novel in which meteorologists name hurricanes after girls. Which is a pity, in a way. Not that they don’t name them after boys, too–they do, nowadays. But the Hurricane of ’38 is also known as the Great New England Hurricane, and even if a hurricane should come next year that moves twice as fast and blows twice as hard, it will still be called Allison or Jessica. We can never honor another storm by simply calling it Great.

We walked through town on the night in 1985 when a lesser hurricane named Gloria had cut the power and closed the roads, marveling at the brightness of stars we’d never been able to see before, and at large pine trees snapped off thirty or forty feet in the air. One of these hefty, wind-blown missiles crashed through a neighbor’s family room ceiling, others merely took down power lines and blocked streets. It took hours to reopen the main roads, weeks to restore power.

We lost half of a red maple to Hurricane Gloria. It split where it branched, about twelve feet up, half the crown shearing off and wrecking a split-rail fence. Like white pines, red maples are liable to lose branches in a high wind. The two have little else in common. Pinus strobus is a dignified tree, dressed in durable forest-green needles meticulously produced in regular bunches of five. Pine trees extract two growing-seasons worth of service from each narrow leaf, a practice that stands in thrifty contrast to the prodigal habits of the red maple–extravagantly throwing away perfectly good leaves scarce six months old. The spendthrift maple exuberantly greets spring by coloring its twigs a highly indecorous shade of scarlet and welcomes autumn with even less restraint, painting entire counties red before going to bed for the winter. If not destroyed by a hurricane, a red maple will live eighty vivid years; a white pine, four sober centuries. There is a moral here.

As hurricanes go, Gloria wasn’t much. Just as my generation’s war looks puny measured against World War II, and our little recessions are nothing compared with the Great Depression. Hurricane Gloria, upending enough trees to knock out electric power for a couple of weeks in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts, was nothing, nothing at all compared to my mother’s hurricane: 1938. Now that was a storm

For starters, no one knew it was coming. The weather bureau was on the job, right enough, but with the limited, coastal-station monitoring equipment of that era, forecasters watched the hurricane veer off Hatteras heading seaward at about seventeen miles an hour, with no way of knowing that it would turn and rush toward New England at a speed of 78 m.p.h.. That’s not the speed of the winds–those were clocked at 120 m.p.h. before they knocked down the weather tower on Fisher’s Island, and were still a powerful 63 m.p.h. when the storm blew itself out over Vermont. 78 m.p.h. is the speed at which the storm itself sped toward an unsuspecting coast.

Forewarned is not necessarily forearmed. Emergency planning officials note that forecasting a major storm is as likely to lure thrillseekers to the coast as it is to result in timely evacuation of threatened neighborhoods. If a way were found to prevent hurricanes by some action as simple and cost-effective as installing storm-shutters, it is to be doubted that many of us would take the trouble to comply.

The Great New England Hurricane killed 700 people, blew the cog railway off Mount Washington, enabled people to row through downtown Hartford, and sent Katharine Hepburn wading to safety through a rising flood of salt water while her parents’ Old Saybrook summer house washed out to sea. Roofs blew off houses in Montreal, fishing boats sank in Lake Champlain, and office workers drowned at their desks in downtown Providence–on the second floor. Sizable chunks of the coast were swept completely away: houses, foundations, land–everything, leaving ocean where neighborhoods had been. And it blew the pine trees down.

Amazed though they were by banks of ripe strawberries, shoals of salmon and the sheer number of deer in the greenwood, nothing impressed Elizabethan explorers on this coast more than the white pine. Taller than a twenty-story building and many feet in girth, the trees dwarfed anything known in England, but they were more than a natural wonder: pine was a vital, strategic resource.

Brittania ruled the waves because she had the finest navy in the world, a navy built of oak hulls and pine masts. Yet by the reign of the Virgin Queen, England’s forests were so depleted that London was reduced to digging coal out of the ground to keep warm, building houses of half timber stuffed with plaster, and fighting wars to protect the vital supply of lumber, masts, and iron from Sweden and Russia. Of course, seventeenth-century England lacked the sophisticated strategic planning that enables modern governments to avoid going to war over such vital resources as oil.

British strategic planning in the 1600s was rudimentary: stockpile enough masts, oak timber, and iron bars to protect sea lanes to the Baltic. In 1654 England found herself at war with Holland and Denmark; worse, those two nations succeeded in closing the narrow arm of salt water connecting the Baltic with the North Sea; worse yet, there were no masts in the Navy yard and you would be reading this magazine in Dutch if a shipment of white pine had not at that moment arrived from New England, sent by savvy colonials calculating to ingratiate themselves with the home government.

A Royal Navy ship of the line required a mast that was forty inches through at the base, one hundred and twenty feet tall, and absolutely straight. In the entire continent of Europe there grew not a single tree that could produce such a mast; so, skilled naval carpenters spliced masts together from lengths of Baltic fir, and British admirals sighed for the strength of masts cut from a single great tree. In a world that had not discovered the towering California redwood or Chilean alerce, the white pine was the only tree big enough and straight enough to make masts for the Navy.

For two centuries the mast fleets sailed regularly from New England ports, slow-handling, unwieldy freighters built to carry a cargo that would swamp an ordinary ship. Escorted by frigates in time of war, unnoticed in peacetime except by the more marginal farmers of New Hampshire and Maine who cut and ox-teamed white pine to the coast for sale to the King’s mast agents, the mast fleets made their passage, carrying a vital strategic resource to England.

Until April of 1775 when Captain Mowatt, in command of His Majesty’s mast ship Minerva at Falmouth, (now Portland) Maine, was briefly imprisoned by the local Committee of Safety while other patriots towed the annual supply of masts to a secure backwater.

Mowatt later returned and burned Portland to the ground, but the colonists had the last laugh. On the day Washington defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown, His Majesty’s fleet was three hundred miles away in New York Harbor, having its masts repaired.

Timing is everything. If Cornwallis had had a fleet at Yorktown, Benedict Arnold would be the revered, patriotic hero of a member nation of the British Commonwealth. If the 1938 hurricane had hit earlier in September, when people were still at their beach houses, it would have killed thousands. If Hurricane Gloria had hit six hours later, at high tide instead of low, the storm surge would have swept a wide swath of cottage-cluttered Rhode Island beach as free of buildings as it was when the Narragansett Indians fished and clammed there.

The British were not alone in their appreciation of the maritime possibilities of a tree that grows two hundred fifty feet high and five feet through; native Americans were putting to sea in white pine canoes when Britons were running through the woods smeared with blue paint. To call these craft canoes is a bit misleading since we are discussing not a birch-bark shell light enough for a strong man to lift above his head and carry around a waterfall, but boats which, although hollowed from the trunk of a single tree, were large enough to sail far offshore with thirty or forty fishermen hunting swordfish and even whales. The way to hunt a swordfish is to sail out to the warm, shark-filled currents of late summer at the edge of the continental shelf, and spear one while it basks in sunlight just below the surface. Spearing a three hundred pound fighting fish in shark-infested water is no sort of job for a birch-bark cockleshell.

If the Indians favored white pine for its solidity and the British for its immense size, Americans liked its light weight and straight grain. Imagine lifting a roof tree hewn of hickory into position and you will gain an appreciation of the virtues of pine; light, strong, smooth, straight, easy to work. And there was so much of it. Sensible folk burnt hickory in the fireplace, made their fences from chestnut, and built everything they could with white pine: great wooden bridges spanning the rivers, bobsleds to whisk through northern winters, and Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond were made from white pine.

When all the pine in New England had been cut, the timber industry moved on to the pine forests of New York, Michigan and Minnesota. No one missed the pines except the red crossbill, disappointed to find no cone-bearing trees producing its favorite food, and an occasional bald eagle. Eagles nest at the top of white pines, liking an aerie fifty feet or more above the tops of other trees. But by the time the pines had gone there were few eagles left in New England. Only farms, stretching from the mountains of New Hampshire to the beaches of Long Island Sound. Then the railroads began to bring corn and beef from midwestern states where for a fraction of the price of a Yankee farm a man could buy acres-of deep, fertile soil that produced double the yield of worn-out Yankee fields, and New England farmers began to abandon the land.

Plowing stopped first. Hayfields, that would once have been planted to timothy or clover were allowed to grow what nature chose, with a few cows turned in to glean what they might. The cows ate the tender leaves of birch and aspen as they sprouted in the half-abandoned pastures; they did not fancy the taste of pine needles. Year by year the aging pasture grew more brambles and less clover until it was no longer worth the trouble of opening the barway to let cows in. At that moment, the old field ceased to be a pasture and began to be a forest; a very young forest where pine rejected by finicky cows had a head start on other trees.

On these worthless, abandoned fields, great pine forests grew, so many pines that the first scholars to study the New England woods, Victorian botanists pursuing a very Victorian passion for mapping the nation’s forests in carefully delineated vegetation regions, labeled a broad swath of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, as well as the southern parts of New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, as the White Pine Zone. In their zeal to fit everything into neat categories, Victorians missed a great many of the more interesting facts in life. They missed, for example, the fact that this region is not naturally so inclined to pine as it then appeared. Pine trees cannot grow in the forest understory; they grow where storms or fires have cleared the forest. This makes pure stands of white pine relatively rare in nature. A name more descriptive of the region’s naturally occurring forest cover would have been Oak/Chestnut Zone, a label used by the generation that lived after the Victorians but before the American Chestnut died, killed by blight. Second-growth pine spawned a lumber boom that saw three billion board feet sawn out of New England forests in 1909. Folks who had forgotten that Massachusetts hillsides could produce saleable commodities, who had almost forgotten that they owned a Massachusetts hillside, suddenly took notice. One of the first things they noticed was that the value of timber increases the longer you wait.

Pine trees four inches in diameter, which is about how big trees will be twenty to forty years after the land is abandoned–depending on how good the land was to begin with–are pretty much worthless. A stand of trees eight or ten inches through may be worth something to a sawmill, or to a pulpmill if there happens to be one nearby. A stand of twenty-inch diameter white pines, on the other hand, is a very valuable item–but it takes a century to produce.

By 1938 there were hundreds of acres of ten- and fifteen- and twenty-inch diameter white pines in New England, pines that had started to grow when the farmer’s sons went west, or failed to come home from the Civil War, or moved to the city. Pine forests painstakingly culled of lesser trees and limbed to produce knot-free boards; pine whose owners had turned deaf ears to the offers of pulp-mill operators in a patient effort to produce high-value saw timber.  They fell in a single afternoon

In some forests, not a single tree was left standing when the Great Hurricane had passed, leaving a tangled mess of broken limbs and splintered trunks. Landowners salvaged what they could, selling lumber in a depression economy and tipping thousands of sawlogs into ponds to preserve the wood against a time when the market might be better. Then Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and logs floated toward the sawmill in one of the great seller’s markets of history.

Sixty years later it is still sometimes possible for a hiker to identify a swath of forest felled by the Great Hurricane. In such a spot, the forest floor will undulate in the pillow- and-cradle pattern that remains after the root ball of a blowdown rots away. The trees will be an even-aged stand of black birch, interspersed with older, misshapen oak; trunks that grow straight for ten feet before losing any sign of a leader and branching madly in every direction. These were decapitated in 1938. But here and there a patch of white pines survives, and among these are a few trees growing on fields abandoned when the Republic was young. They are not as big as the trees the Indians hollowed out to hunt whales in; not as big as the trees the British Navy cut to mast its ships-of-the-line; not yet. But some of them are three feet through and a hundred and fifty feet high. They get bigger every year. Just by waiting, just by taking the time to walk into the woods and look, our grandchildren will one day see giant pines, pines larger than anyone now living can remember.

Unless, of course, life continues in its familiar paths.

If it does, if we continue to heat our houses with fossil fuel, drive cars that spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and read magazines printed on paper made from wood, our grandchildren will live in a world without pine trees. The problem, of course, is that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, and we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at rates high enough to raise the temperature of the earth three or four degrees within the lifetime of children now in kindergarten. Three degrees isn’t much; just enough to change everything.

Sugar maples, white pine and birch trees will die. Aggressive forest management might succeed in distributing some warm-climate species fast enough to keep up with a rapidly warming climate, but white pine is a cool-weather species. If we continue to generate carbon dioxide at the present rate, enough to warm the atmosphere by just three degrees, there will be no white pines in the White Pine Zone, no sugar maples in Vermont, no trout in the Adirondacks. Maine will be too warm for hemlock, much too far south for moose and our grandchildren will never see a hillside of sugar maples blazing in autumn glory. They may, however, live to see hurricanes of a size my mother’s generation could not even imagine.

The worst-case scenario–we are a species fond of worst-case scenarios–is a hurricane that moves the way the Great Hurricane of 1938 moved: north, without making landfall on Hatteras. A really big hurricane requires the cooperation of dual high-pressure systems, a Bermuda high parked over the Atlantic, and a continental high over the midwest. Under these conditions, a hurricane can race toward Long Island through a low pressure trough, drawing strength from heat transferred to the atmosphere by evaporating ocean water. The warmer the ocean, the bigger the storm

An increase of three degrees in the temperature of a low pressure trough where a major hurricane is feeding on the ocean’s heat might raise the wind speeds of our next hurricane from the 131 to 155 m.p.h. which such storms are currently capable of generating, to the 190 to 230 m.p.h. range. The margin represents the difference between destruction and obliteration.

Persons considering the purchase of ocean-front property may wish to peruse a map outlining the extensive neighborhoods known to have been under water in September 1938. More homes than you might expect stand on such land since the hurricane made a large number of sites available for development.

Which city is obliterated is a matter of chance and timing. A storm making a direct hit on the New York bight would make life interesting for residents in neighborhoods as far from the beach as Canarsie, Brooklyn, where 24-foot seas would completely submerge neat rows of two-story brick homes.

Residents of beach-front communities on the Jersey shore do not need to worry about property damage. A mere, Gloria-size, category-3 hurricane making a direct hit on New Jersey would do more than damage property; a large segment of that low, sandy coast would simply vanish.

A reprise of the Great New England Hurricane, crossing Long Island and hitting the coast east of New Haven before racing toward Montreal, would reshape the map of Long Island, open new inlets, eliminate neighborhoods, and temporarily submerge Montauk, Southamp-ton, Quogue, and Moriches. Cabin cruisers would block major highways in Connecticut, parked aircraft would be lifted from the tarmac at Logan airport and set down in Chelsea, railroad tracks would wash away. Large areas of New England would have no usable roads, no telephones, no electricity, no drinking water. All of this happened in 1938. But nobody plans on hurricanes. Even at Bluff Point, Groton, where the Great Hurricane swept many acres out to sea and “caused a rapid return to the undeveloped state,” the surviving land is a popular state park with spacious parking lots for the convenience of fishermen and hikers. It is the carbon dioxide spewed into the air by those fishermen’s cars, by bird watchers’ cars, by your car, by my car, that will make storm watching really interesting over the next few decades.

Atmospheric warming brought on by all that burning petroleum may cause the rise in sea level to speed up from the 1/10 inch per year or so we’ve seen for the last several hundred years–although even a tenth of an inch a year is a lot in cities like Venice, where sea level is rising but the buildings are not. It is quite a lot in places like Long Island, New Haven and Atlantic City, which are fewer inches above sea level with every lapping wave. Higher sea levels make built-up coasts increasingly vulnerable to storm damage. Sea level rises when the atmosphere warms, warm air warms the oceans, and warm oceans fuel tropical storms–all of which opens an unique opportunity.

Storm watchers awed by the power of nature unleashed are, for the first time in history, able to do more than watch. Just by turning on the evening news and following the weather report, storm fanciers are actually able to increase the prospect of seeing a hurricane peel the skin off Manhattan skyscrapers and suck out the contents. It is as if Mariners fans could, by cheering really loud, increase the speed of Randy Johnson’s fast ball to 120 m.p.h.. Carbon dioxide produced by the fuel that powers the television set does its bit to alter the atmosphere and warm the planet. True, each television draws only a tiny amount of current. But when we’re talking about changes this large, every little bit helps.

(First published in The North American Review, Mar-Apr 1998 v283 n2 p4(5) )