New England

‘It Scared Me Half to Death:' New Englanders Remember '38 Hurricane

The Great Hurricane of 1938 devastated the Northeast 80 years ago

New Englanders are remembering the killer storm known as the Great Hurricane of 1938, 80 years to the date after its devastation.

“We just hadn’t ever seen anything like it,” recalled Richard Hamilton, 96, who remembers uprooted trees, blocked roads, and property losses in Brattleboro, Vermont. “It was severe winds that brought such destruction.”

Near Boston, data from the Blue Hills Observatory showed sustained winds topping 120 miles per hour, with a gust of 186 miles per hour.

New London, Connecticut saw catastrophic fires from downed power lines, according to the National Weather Service, and downtown Providence, Rhode Island was left underwater after a storm tide of 20 feet.

There was even a frantic race to save the Vermont State House in Montpelier, curator David Schutz said.

“It nearly lifted the dome off the top of the building,” Schutz said last week when giving a tour of the dome. “So for the very first time, they took efforts to tie the dome to the building–physically tie it down.”

Numbers from the National Weather Service showed hundreds were killed across the northeast, with nearly 9,000 homes and buildings ruined, and many more damaged.

The company AIR Worldwide, which creates models of catastrophes, estimated that if the same storm were to hit today, it would bring a $50-billion impact.

“It scared me half to death,” remembered Lorna Maloney, who was 5-years-old when the hurricane hit New England.

Maloney and her older sister, Gloria Goulet, who is now 88, said in the era before TV meteorologists, they did not have any warning about the danger coming their way in the small town of Washington, Vermont.

“Our radio didn’t come in half the time—we didn’t have a telephone,” Goulet remembered, adding that in the days after the storm, she saw severe wind damage that was stunning to a small child.

At the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, executive director Steve Perkins called the ’38 hurricane a “defining event” for New England.

Perkins said neighbors helped neighbors clean up, towns rebuilt, and vowed to get stronger–for all the storms to come.

“Communities came together,” Perkins said of the aftermath of the storm. “I think it’s horrible that we have [devastating storms], but reflecting on them, we can think about what it means to be a Vermonter—or a New Englander.”

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