The Hurricane of 1938

During the week of September 18, 1938, no one in Lowell was worried about a hurricane. The public’s attention was focused on two things: Germany was about to invade Czechoslovakia and on that Tuesday (September 20) voters would go to the polls for the state primary election. Lowell voters were especially interested in the outcome of the Republican primary since the city’s mayor, Dewey Archambault, sought the nomination for Lieutenant Governor.

There was concern that Tuesday’s forecast – “rain and possibly cooler tonight and tomorrow” – might keep voter turnout low. Besides that weather forecast, Tuesday’s newspaper carried a small story, “Florida Breathes Easier as Hurricane Heads From Coast” which predicted that the storm “was expected to change its course sufficiently to pass well to the eastward of Cape Hatteras region.”

While the storm did skirt past North Carolina, on Wednesday, September 21, it slammed first into Long Island and then into the Rhode Island coast before striking Massachusetts, leaving death and devastation in its wake. Lowell was not spared. A huge headline in an “extra” edition of Wednesday night’s newspaper screamed “The Hurricane: National Guard Controls All Downtown” with this as the first paragraph:

Lowell went under martial law tonight as the city was ripped, torn and laid waste by the worst gale in its history. Terrifying in its intensity and rising in whining crescendo to high pitched moans, the wind hit with hurricane force shortly before 5 p.m. Sweeping in from due east, it rapidly stepped up its velocity to a maximum of 65 miles an hour. It whipsawed every living thing, toppled trees by the hundreds, smashed roofs, doors and windows, menaced life and limb and ran up a property toll that will run into thousands of dollars. As far as can be learned, there has been no loss of life, but scores have been injured by falling trees and flying glass.

That last part of the story proved incorrect. Twenty-one year old Walter Ouellette of Kendall Road in Tyngsborough was killed in the storm:

Shortly after 6:30 o’clock last night, Ouellette, a utility emergency worker, was knocked from a pole in Tyngsboro by a falling tree. He died soon after arrival at the Lowell General hospital from a fractured skull and other injuries. The man was doing emergency work when the tree crashed against the pole on which he was working, throwing him to the ground under it.

Another young man, William Zieleniski, age 14 of 32 Wamesit Street in Lowell, was seriously injured when he was struck by a section of roof blown off a building while walking on Rogers Street. “The object struck the boy in the face, knocking his left eye out, and badly mangling his face.” Zielensiski was rushed to St John’s Hospital. In the midst of an operation to repair the damage, the hospital lost electrical power so the doctors had to complete the procedure “with the aid of flashlights and candles.” Many others were injured by flying glass and debris.

Today we’re fortunate that Hurricane Earl is expected to pass by us far enough to the east to avoid any serious damage in Lowell. The story of the Hurricane of 1938, however, reminds us that we’re not immune from that type of force of nature and that prudent precautions are well advised.

5 Responses to The Hurricane of 1938

  1. Dean says:

    If you are ever in the Florida Keys stop at the 1935 Hurricane Memorial is Islamorada. It is just off U.S. 1, mile marker 81.5. It memorializes the WW I veterans and civilians who perished in the 1935 hurricane. Total deaths from the storm 423.

  2. Greg Page says:

    I think people will be surprised to know that as I write this (11:15 a.m. on Saturday), the Mass. National Guard has still not officially stood down from a State Active Duty (SAD) status.

    It may seem like a waste — it looks like Earl’s worst casualties are some people waking up with headaches right now on Nantucket after barhopping in orange lifejackets — but it’s always good to see how rapidly MEMA can swing into action when needed. Also, a lot of the initial work in an SAD scenario goes to full-timers, who are already getting paid on the 1st and 15th regardless…no additional costs to the state or federal gov.

    Given the lessons we (hopefully) learned from Katrina, it seems to me that what the President and Governor did with respect to Earl was right on the money — stage the equipment, be ready for the worst, and then be able to smile in the morning when Fortune moves a step or two in your favor.

  3. JoeS says:

    It’s too bad some people will try to make political hay on the perceived “over-reaction”. But when the penalty for “too little, too late” is so severe, extra caution is the best policy.

  4. Marie says:

    Kudos to MEMA and FEMA and Governor Patrick.. Showing prepardedness is always important. Anything could have happened and now we know that the collaboration works!