Though they are rare, this is not the Northeast's first time dealing with a hurricane.
On September 21, 1938, a hurricane, later to be known as the Long Island Express, came roaring up the Eastern Seaboard over Long Island and through parts of New England with a fury beyond any coastal storm in the memory of the people living there.
According to the U.S. Weather Service, it had already been raining for days ahead of the storm and the tide was near its highest point when the storm made landfall.¬† The effect of the storm surge was devastating, the destruction of property immense and the loss of life severe.
Where it hit, the storm took most residents by surprise.¬† No early warning came telling them to get out of the way.¬† No substantial preparations to structures had been made.
In 1938, the methods of tracking storms moving up the coastline relied on radio communications from sailors on ships at sea and from people on the coast trained to keep their eyes on the darkening skies.¬† In this case, that system failed.
In Peg Van Patten's 2010 article for NOAA's ClimateWatch magazine, "A Hurricane in New England," she describes how forecasters and storm trackers made assumptions that once the storm turned northward away from Florida it would spin off into the North Atlantic; most storms like it did.¬† The ships that would have been watching moved away to avoid that spinoff.¬† As a result, no hurricane warnings were issued for the Long Island or New England areas.
Even had they gotten a warning, few coastal residents of New England had ever experienced a major hurricane, so their awareness of how to prepare was nowhere near what their counterparts in Southern states such as Florida and North Carolina could muster.¬† The knowledge of how to prepare the homes and buildings to withstand the winds, how to prepare for enduring the storm as it hit and the knowledge of how to best evacuate if necessary were not things most people considered.
Sparing no one because of social status, the storm hit the wealthy and poor alike.
On the coast of Connecticut, in Fenwick, actress Katharine Hepburn struggled to survive in her family home as it collapsed around her.¬† She would later recall the despair of seeing her house float away in her autobiography, "Me."
In Newport, Rhode Island, gilded-age mansions built by families named Vanderbilt and Astor took the brunt of the storm.
"The Hurricane of 1938" by Aram Goudsouzian describes the drama in nearby Conanicut Island, where a school bus full of children stalled on a causeway just as the storm surge hit.¬† The father of four of those children, Joseph Matoes Sr., saw what was about to happen and tried in vain to get the school bus driver to turn around.
Unable to reach them, he watched helplessly as the surge washed over the bus while the driver tried to help the children to the safety of the shore.¬† The wave swept most of them away.¬† Only one student, 12-year-old boy Clayton Chellis, and the driver were strong enough to escape and swim to safety.¬† All four of Matoes' children perished.
No harbor in the path of the Long Island Express was left fully intact and no coastal community was spared.¬† No survivors were left untouched by some measure of grief.¬† Taking a lesson from the tragedy of 1938, weather-minded scientists and innovators began developing and utilizing improved methods for tracking storms and for alerting the populations of coastal communities about the approach of killer hurricanes.
Today, Hurricane Irene is moving toward New York and New England.¬† The people there know it's coming, but will they take heed of the lessons of 1938?