Robert Whitcomb: Too much wind for too much wood on Sept. 21, 1938

$27.50
By Stephen Long

(Original review published by The Weekly Standard)

When I was a boy living in coastal Massachusetts I frequently heard stories about the great hurricane that crashed into Long Island and New England on Sept. 21, 1938.  Most of the people who described it to me – my father and  some of his friends -- were only in their thirties and early forties when they told me about it, and had very vivid stories, especially after a few drinks."

What the 1906 earthquake is to San Francisco, the 1871 fire is to Chicago and Hurricane Katrina is to New Orleans, the ’38 Hurricane (aka “The Long Island Express’’) is to New England and Long Island.

Given the scale of the catastrophe in one of the most populous and richest parts of the country, the ’38 Hurricane  at first got surprisingly little attention from the rest of the country because attention was riveted on the Munich Crisis; many assumed that war was about to break out in Europe; of course, that wouldn’t be for another year.

The storm killed around 700 people and destroyed many buildings, bridges and miles of road. Its tidal surge altered long stretches of the southern New England and Long Island coasts.

Stephen Long clearly and dramatically, and sometimes with  droll humor, details the mayhem produced by torrential rain followed by winds that gusted to nearly 200 miles an hour on Blue Hill,  south of Boston. He serves up a mix of regional history, meteorology, botany, ecology, politics,  economics  -- allseasoned with anecdotes.

But his book is mostly about the trees that the storm took down, especially in New England’s  large and well-established second-growth forests and “the pastoral combination of farm field and forest {that} adorned’’ the region, interspersed by villages with steepled white churches. That’s the (unrepresentative) scene that many tourists most associate with the region. The storm’s massive blowdowns (including of steeples) altered the views in many places.

As a boy, I saw evidence of this damage in the woods next to our house, where there were numerous pits where the roots of uprooted trees had been. From the pits’ shape you could tell which direction the strongest wind came – southeast, at more than 100 miles an hour. And there were still many gaps in the woods where tall trees had once stood.

Mr. Long, founder and former editor of Northern Woodlands magazine, focuses on the ecological, economic  and sociological effects of the storm’s destruction of mature trees in a wide swath of New England.

“The roaring wind toppled forests in every New England state, with New Hampshire and Massachusetts (east of the eye of the storm) hit particularly hard. The path of destruction spanned ninety miles across....’’ And  “70 percent or more of the toppled timber was Pinus strobus – eastern white pine’’ – the most valuable (and vulnerable) tree crop in New England because of its height, straightness and its many uses, from lumber to make houses, to furniture to cheap shipping boxes.  (Mr. Long describes how mighty New England’s cheap-pine-box industry was before heavy-duty cardboard and plastic took its place.)

All this devastated many landowners, already brought low by the Great Depression, who depended on  pine sales from their wood lots to make ends meet.

Also torn up were many maple-tree stands, the sap from which provided a lot of extra income to New England farmers and other landowners.

Mr. Long writes very accessibly about why certain trees sustained far more damage than others -- e.g.,  “The taller the tree the longer the lever and the greater the force it can exert on the ground where it’s anchored.’’ Trees on southeast-facing slopes were particularly vulnerable.

Enter the New Deal, in an example of what perhaps only government can do:  Clean up damage from natural disasters that extends over many square miles. Much praise was due the U.S. Forest Service, as well as Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, in responding to a disaster as huge as the ’38 Hurricane.

The first imperative, state and federal officials and an anxious public thought, was to reduce the chances of massive forest fires from the downed and thus drying trees and branches. Indeed, some of the forests were closed to the public for long stretches after the hurricane for fear of fire. That the hurricane had made many of the fire-watch towers inaccessible --  roads were blocked by fallen trees – made it that much scarier.

And so, Mr. Long explains, federal officials, led by the U.S. Forest Service, pulled together the resources of various organizations but especially thousands of otherwise unemployed men working for the CCC (young men) and the WPA (which had older men too). They opened roads  and helped clean out much of the combustible debris left on the ground by the hurricane.

The Roosevelt administration pushed the project. Mr. Long describes “the WPA’s own portrayal of its hurricane relief efforts, as seen in an eleven-minute film….Shock Troops of Disaster bears a striking resemblance to wartime newsreels, depicting feverish activity accompanied by charged music and stentorian narration. Referring to the WPA, the narrator described it in this way: ‘Manpower, turning from regular public improvements and services into the breach in times of dire need.’’’

But what to do with the fallen timber taken out of the woods, which could flood the market and lower the already low price of the wood? To address this issue, the government invaded the private market with a vengeance.

Mr. Long explains: “The Forest Service saw the need for a stabilizing influence on the price of logs and the flow of lumber to the market….{so it} put the power of the federal government to work’’ by establishing “a fair price for logs,’’ and buying up all it could and then gradually selling it as “demand required. At the heart of this reasoning was that the purchasing program would  allow thousands of local landowners to realize a decent return from what could have been a nearly total economic loss.’’

“The total cost of the salvage program was $16,269,000’’ {in dollars of the time}, of which 92 percent was recovered by the government. It seems doubtful that such market intervention will  happen after the next big hurricane blows through. But then, FDR & Co. saw the hurricane response as another way of fighting the Depression.

The cleanup showed just how good Americans, via a collaboration of the private and public sectors, can be at addressing an emergency – as they were soon to prove after Pearl Harbor. And a lot of that hurricane wood was used in war-related products and then in the post-war building boom.

Meanwhile, with the continuing disappearance of farmland, New England is now more forested than at any time in 200 years.  Some year, the Northeast will again have a record surplus of lumber on the ground after another huge hurricane. We may then long for a CCC and a WPA.

Robert Whitcomb (rwhitcomb51@gmail.com) is overseer of newenglanddiary.com.