Yet, thats precisely the case with R.A. Scottis “Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938,“ a gripping, page-turning work of non-fiction from the former journalist and novelist of thrillers and stories of international espionage. Not only does Scotti vividly document the destruction wreaked by a freak 1938 storm that made the East Coasts recent brush with Hurricane Isabel look light a light spring rain, but she accents it with insights into the strengths and weaknesses of humanity that give the book great depth and emotional impact.
In many ways, this seemingly little-known event was the Perfect Storm. Described as “the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history -- worse than the San Francisco earthquake, the Chicago fire, or any Mississippi flood,“ it came out of nowhere and tore across seven northeastern states, killing 682 people (more than 400 were from Rhode Island) and severely injuring nearly 2,000 more.
Traveling at record speeds, the storm raced up the Atlantic Coast, reaching New York and New England ahead of hurricane warnings and striking with such force that that seismographs in Alaska picked up the vibrations. Winds reach 186 mph, enough to strip cars of their paint and create a sudden sea - walls of water 50 feet high that engulfed home and swept entire families out to sea. Its devastation was random and irreversible. The hurricane J. P. Morgan‘s Long Island estate, wiped out scores of beach communities, flooded the Connecticut Valley and permanently damaged and flattened Vermont‘s prized maples. Truly, nothing like it had been seen before or since.
In the first chapter, Scotti sets the stage by explaining a few of the reasons why noone was prepared for, or could have possibly done anything to prevent what happened:
“A summer idyll on the very edge of the ocean, Napatree was “sunshine, surf, and salt air blown over a thousand miles of open sea.“Those who lived there called it heaven on earth. They came back summer after summer, the well-to-do with live-in help, and their children grew up, married, and returned with their children. They surf-cast for flat fish from the rocks at the point, raced one another in their sailboats on Little Narragansett Bay, and occasionally lamented the fact that in all the years they‘d been coming to Napatree, they ‘d never weathered a real lollapalooza of a storm.
Hurricane was a foreign word in New England. People didn‘t know how to pronounce it. They didn‘t know what it meant, and whatever it meant, they were sure it couldn‘t happen to them, until September 21, 1938. On that last perfect beach day, a maverick storm sprinted a mile a minute up the Atlantic seaboard. Like a giant Cyclops, the storm had a single, intense, sky blue eye, and it was fixed on New England.
An extreme hurricane is both the most spectacular show on earth and the deadliest. By comparison, the atom bomb is a firecracker on the Fourth of July. Scientists estimate its force variously as the equivalent of an H-bomb going off every sixty seconds or three ten-megaton bombs exploding every hour. The Great Hurricane of 1938 was just such an extreme storm. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it was one of the ten “storms of the century “and the most violent and destructive natural disaster in New England history.
Most hurricanes attack with three weapons: swirling winds so strong that chickens are plucked clean of their feathers, rain so heavy that it turns tributaries into rampaging Mississippis, and waves so high that at first glance they may look like a fogbank rolling in. The Great Hurricane of 1938 had a fourth weapon: surprise.
On that capricious Wednesday at the ragtag end of summer, a strange yellow light came off the ocean and an eerie siren filled the air like a wordless chantey. In the next instant, serene bays became swirling cauldrons, and everything moored and un-moored was picked up and whipped in -- fishing tackle, teapots, corsets, porch gliders, picnic baskets, bathing caps, clamming rakes, washboards, front doors, barn doors, car doors, sand pails and shovels, sandpipers, sea horses, girls in summer dresses, men in flannel trousers, lovers on an empty beach, children in their innocence. Joseph Matoes and his three sisters on the Jamestown school bus, Geoffrey Moore and his three sisters in their Napatree beach house were scooped up and tossed into the maelstrom.
Although the sea had been running high and small-craft warnings were in effect, as late as midafternoon there would be no alert that a killer storm was prowling the coast. Rampaging through seven states in seven hours, it would rip up the famous boardwalk in Atlantic City, flood the Connecticut River Valley, and turn downtown Providence into a seventeen-foot lake.
At two o‘clock the swath of coastline from Cape May to Maine was one of the wealthiest and most populous in the world. By evening, it would be desolate. The Great Hurricane of 1938 was more than a storm. It was the end of a world.“
This impressively told tale again confirms that real-life is always more amazing than that created in fiction, and there is rarely a page that doesnt grip the reader tightly, defying one to put down the book. Through interviews with survivors and some accomplished research and detective work, she balances the horror of the hurricane with a number of poignant stories, such as those of a man who sees his children washed away from their school bus into the sea, two sweethearts who nearly lose each other, and a young weather forecaster who knows far more than his superiors and fights to be heard. Some previously published recollections, including some from the late Katharine Hepburn, all contribute to piecing together the puzzle of what happened - before, during and after - making this an unforgettable and highly recommended read.