The tragedy of the New England hurricane of 1938 was not the loss of nearly 10,000 homes and business along the shore. It was the psychic destruction of summer for an entire generation. Virtually everyone that lived on or near the New England coast was traumatized by the loss of someone or something they loved. People who lived in homes their grandparents built and thought were safe and secure were killed, injured or saw their property destroyed.
Martha’s Vineyard was hit hard, but not with the full force of the storm. The sustained winds of the hurricane were clocked at 121 miles per hour with gusts of 186 miles per hour. The reason that land on Martha’s Vineyard was so cheap in the 1950s and early 1960s was in part due to the fact that the hurricane had destroyed a generation of summer people and not many wanted to live here.
Building code changes requiring that new homes on the Island be able to withstand 110 mile-per-hour winds only highlight the fact that many if not most homes on the Island really won’t stand up to real hurricane winds. What about a 20-foot hurricane surge? What has been created on Martha’s Vineyard by unrealistic zoning and building codes is certain destruction of not just buildings and boats, but of what the Island stands for and the community itself.
The people who built fishing camps on the beach knew they could be washed away. But their children forgot and expanded them to become cottages and eventually the cottages got sold and scrapped to become mansions.
In December of 2007 I met with Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and gave him a copy of Everett S. Allen’s book A Wind To Shake The World.
Everett Allen grew up on the Vineyard and wrote probably the best account of the 1938 New England hurricane. I had discussed with Mr. London the need for Island beach homes to be raised on poles to withstand a hurricane surge. At the same time Island codes prohibit such protective measures. For those who don’t have time to read the book there was a 10-minute film of the hurricane made back in 1938 called Shock Troops of Disaster that can be viewed on YouTube.
The fact that the state building code requires new homes to withstand 110-mile-per-hour winds and insurance companies are refusing to insure coastal property against hurricanes should be a wake-up call. Instead of complaining about the rising cost of home construction, the debate should be how best to prepare the Island for a hurricane like the one in 1938.
It may be too late to save homes built near beaches but it is not too late to educate Island residents to the high risk of living so far out in the Atlantic ocean. There are a lot of relatively inexpensive things that can be done to reinforce existing Island homes against hurricane, but what is most needed is an Island hurricane plan itself.
If a hurricane hit in August or even September there likely would not be time for evacuation. The lack of preparedness on the Island is no one person’s fault. The same attitude exists in all of New England as did in New Orleans before Katrina. To me it’s a freak-out to learn that up until now building codes only required new homes on the Island to withstand 90 mile-per-hour winds. That is a gentle breeze in the history of Atlantic blows.
Stephen Jones lives in Salt Lake City and Chappaquiddick.