The 1938 Hurricane

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By Mike Bisceglia, Jr.

Hampton Union, July 31, 2007

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

It was a gentler time in New England. The Great War was fading into history; the Depression had released its stranglehold on the country, and the war in Europe was merely kitchen table conversation. Artie Shaw's "Begin the Beguine" was the top hit song of the day, and Frank Capra's "You Can't Take It With You" was number one at the box office.

In Hampton, the festivities of the Tercentennial Celebration had wound to a successful conclusion in August, and inhabitants of Hampton and the region were returning to their normal daily activities. It was a time of calm, but that calm was about to be shattered by a monster churning up the Atlantic. The year was 1938.

Frank Nownes remembers the day well.

"I was 21, and I had been hired to dress up as a Pilgrim and be the town crier. I was supposed to stand in front of the Casino, ring a bell, and call out, 'Hear ye! Hear ye!'."

Nownes knew nothing of the terrible forecast for Sept. 21. No one did.

Weather satellites and The Weather Channel didn't exist, and the common belief was that hurricanes didn't prowl into the North Atlantic region.

"My job was to attract people to pay a quarter to go upstairs to check out the television exhibit. It was supposed to be the new, big thing. It was nothing like it was today. It was just gray shadows going across the screen. People came downstairs very angry at me, telling me the television wasn't worth anything near 25 cents."

There were no reports that the great storm was bearing down on the Northeast. The fragile telephone communication system was being blown down in the New York-Connecticut region before word could be sent to the north. The storm was traveling more than 60 miles per hour and packing winds well into the 150 to 160 mph range. It was definitely a CAT 5 storm, although the category ranking system didn't exist at the time.

"As the day went on and the wind began to pick up, very few people were headed down to the beach," said Nownes. "My boss told me that I had done enough for the day and to head home. That's exactly where I went. My mother had a large building on Winnacunnet Road. My family lived in the attic, and she took care of old folks down below. I got back to the house about the time that trees started to go down all around town. We thought the house was sure to go too, but it didn't."

The Nownes home suffered only minimal roof damage as the storm's winds dropped below 100 mph as it swept up through Massachusetts and into Vermont. The total number of trees felled by the storm in New England was calculated to be more than 275,000,000. Firewood from the storm was still being used as late as 1980.

"I remember everyone was out working and fixing everything after the storm passed," said Nownes.

"I remember vividly the numbers of utility trucks down here from Vermont. They came down in droves."

No lives were lost in Hampton as a result of GH38, although the storm claimed some 720 lives from New York northward. In all, 19,608 boats were lost; approximately 20 were lost along Hampton Beach.

"It was a day I'll never forget," said Nownes.

Those same sentiments were echoed by everyone in the Northeast who lived through it.

{Mike Bisceglia Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Hampton.}

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