Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti

Things haven’t changed much in sixty-seven years. “People against nature” still makes for gripping tales of suspense, and the weather is as predictable now as it was then.

“We have split the atom, orbited the earth, touched down on the moon, and cracked the genetic code, yet after decades of study and with all the technological tools of the trade – radar, radiosonde, aerial reconnaissance, weather satellites and mathematical computer models – we still cannot predict a hurricane more than twenty-four hours in advance,” points out author R. A. Scotti.

In 1938, weather forecasters had no such sophisticated tools and so it’s really no surprise that when the hurricane hit the coast of New England the inhabitants in the seven states through which it raged had no warning of the severity of what was descending upon them.

The destruction of property, not to mention the New England coastline, could not have been averted in any case, but almost 700 people died and debate has raged ever since on what could have been done to prevent so many tragedies.

Author Scotti follows the traditional format of people against nature stories in telling the tale. Her first chapter introduces us to four different groups of people, and tells what they were doing early on September 21, 1938…the day the hurricane hit. We are put into suspense – who among these people will survive and who will not?

Irritatingly, we don’t find out until very near the end of the book. In between we are continuously introduced to more and more people, from the weather forecasters who termed the hurricane a tropical storm for most of its existence, to famous individuals like Katherine Hepburn who played a game of golf before the winds and water hit and destroyed her family’s home, to everyday people who lived through the horror of watching a wall of water rush towards them before sweeping them away.

As her tale begins, Scotti gives us the background of life as it was like in 1938, from the types of cars to music to sports. We’re given a brief explanation of what environmental conditions cause hurricanes, the history of the U. S. Weather Bureau which was woefully inadequate in 1938. But as the story progresses and the suspense mounts she continues to interrupt the flow with yet more history lessons – interesting in themselves but annoying when one is trying to find out who lives and who dies.

But that’s a minor quibble (as is the fact that Scotti doesn’t mention the hurricane of 1900 that destroyed Galveston, Texas and killed over a thousand people).

Scotti knows her subject thoroughly, draws us in and makes us care about these individuals. They return to life on the page. Vignettes of tragedy and irony, heroism and cowardice – stories about people from the affected states pile up one on top of the other.

The story ends with the end of the hurricane, with little attention given to the cleanup that followed, except to mention the looting that took place almost immediately afterwards. Human nature never changes. Scotti also points out that it was this force of nature that finally brought about the rise of the airplane as a mode of travel – with train tracks and roads destroyed, traveling by air was the only way to go.

Scotti gives us a selected bibliography, from books to websites to magazine articles, as well as sources and chapter notes.

Back Bay Books. 2003. Paperback edition released 2004 includes a Reading Group Guide, and Questions and Topics for Discussion. 280 pages including index.

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