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Cape residents, weather experts recall the New England Hurricane of 1938

Ginny Dunham Hutchinson was 14 and a student at the Barnstable Senior/Junior High School when she and some friends walked to the beach on the afternoon of September 22, 1938.En route from the Dunham family’s cottage by Wequaquet Lake in Centerville, the group had to climb and scramble over countless downed Elm trees that blocked streets and roads, and their way. The weather on the 22nd was calm and clear, Ginny recalls, but damage incurred during the powerful hurricane the day before surrounded the young explorers everywhere.

“All I remember is trying to climb over all of the trees,” recalls the Sandwich resident, now 89. “We did a lot of walking back then. We walked down to the ocean, up onto Long Beach Road. It was very interesting. All of the houses had some damage and a couple of them were in the river.” Looking toward the water, Ginny saw what would prove to be her lasting memory of the hurricane. “There was a huge piano out on the beach,” she says. “Covered with seaweed. You could tell that it was a big grand piano. It was like a movie.”

For thousands in the Northeast, the New England Hurricane of 1938, which brought death and destruction along with its wind, rain, and floodwaters on September 21, 1938, was a nightmare. Unlike today’s storms, this hurricane arrived, metaphorically, out of the clear blue sky. “The big thing about that storm,” says Charlie Tilton, 81, of Cuttyhunk Island, “is we didn’t know it was coming. The weather service, or whoever, totally lost it (the storm).”

The details of the destruction are numbing. In all, nearly 700 people died in the Category 3 hurricane, and more than 57,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of boats were damaged or sunk. The storm surge left Falmouth and New Bedford under eight feet of water. New London, Conn. was devastated first by wind and floodwaters, then by fire. Providence, R.I. was flooded and many people drowned in store and home basements. More than 50 people died in Long Island, N.Y.; five perished in Buzzards Bay when their home was washed away.

The 1938 hurricane is considered the worst to strike New England in modern times—dating back to the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635—and in its day, it was deemed the costliest in U.S. history. During the storm, the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton recorded a sustained wind speed of 121 m.p.h. for five minutes as well as a high of 186 m.p.h.—the highest in the observatory’s history.

Charles Orloff, the observatory’s executive director and a resident of Yarmouthport, describes the hurricane as “the most significant storm event ever observed in the history of the Blue Hill Observatory. It was the greatest single event in the last 500 years on the Cape,” he adds. “It was quite an event.”

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