Flying Into A Hurricane….The Storm Of The Century

Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi

September 3, 1998

“You see those last two numbers on the tail?”

The air force public affairs officer had to shout above the din of the plane’s four engines as we walked out to the flight line.  I could barely hear him.

“The last two numbers?” I shouted back.  “Sure….six and two.”

Smiling now, and yelling even louder as we got close to the WC-130, he shook my hand, “That’s the year this plane was built. 1962. Have a great flight!”

And with that he clapped me on my back and returned to the flight line as my photographer and I climbed aboard the nearly four-decade old plane.  To this day, I don’t know if that public affairs officer was pulling my leg, but, once my gear was stowed and I had a chance to look around the interior of the aircraft, I didn’t doubt him.

The plane looked ancient.

Plumes of cooled air spilled out of air-conditioning vents throughout the plane.  The cooler air, mixing with the warm, moist gulf air that filled the plane, became visible – a white, steamy presence that created a surreal scene.

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Eric Sander, my colleague from Channel 5 in Mobile, checked his camera gear, secured it, and buckled in beside me.   We were about to spend the next thirteen hours in the air, flying through Hurricane Earl as it approached the Gulf Coast, in a plane that –according to the public affairs guy- was built during the Kennedy administration.

I had volunteered for this assignment.

Hell, I had pitched this assignment and then harangued the Hurricane Hunters at Keesler to get us aboard a flight.

They said yes.

The plane started moving.

Oh, shit.

——————————————————-

It seems appropriate the Hurricane Hunters – these Air Force personnel who fly into storms- began on a dare.  In 1944, as World War II raged across Europe and in the Pacific, a Lt. Col Joe Duckworth took a training aircraft into the eye of a hurricane far from the battlegrounds.  He returned, and the idea that planes could be used to help forecast hurricane tracks was born.

….and that brings us to the reason for today’s column.

Six years before Col. Duckworth flew into that storm, a hurricane formed off the Cape Verde Islands in the Eastern Atlantic.  It was early September, 1938.  The storm increased in strength and followed a track across the Atlantic where, just east of the Bahamas, it turned into a monster.  Meteorological historians estimate the storm reached Category 5 status – with sustained winds reaching more than 160 miles an hour.  A trough of low pressure in the Appalachians forced the storm east.  A high pressure system over Bermuda bounced the storm back west.  The two systems acted like a funnel, forcing the storm in the only direction it could go: north.

Now, think of a garden hose.  Water flows out of the hose in an even stream; place your thumb over half of the nozzle and the water pressure increases, forcing the water out in a more powerful jet.  That’s exactly what happened with this hurricane: the two systems worked together to increase the forward speed of that storm, now bearing down on Long Island.  On September 21, 1938 – 75 years ago- this monster storm made landfall on Long Island, swept over Long Island Sound, and arrived in Westerly.

It was ten minutes before four in the afternoon.

It was the worst time possible for a storm to hit.

High tide, made even higher due to the autumnal equinox and full moon, flooded areas from Hartford to Cape Cod.

100 people in Westerly died.

Two people aboard a train, trapped by storm debris in Connecticut, died as they attempted to escape.

Actress Katharine Hepburn, according to one story, barely made it out of her Connecticut home before it was destroyed.  Her Oscar, won in 1932, was swept out to sea…and eventually recovered.

The worst damage, however, was left for coastal Rhode Island.  Storm surge funneled up Narragansett Bay and flooded downtown Providence.  Floodwaters reached as high as ten feet in some areas of the city.  Entire beachfront communities were destroyed.

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All told, more than 500 people were killed.

57,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.

The storm, in today’s dollars, left more than $4.7 billion in damages.

The lack of adequate warning contributed to the damage left by the storm.  Yes, area residents knew a storm was coming, but its strength, direction and approximate time of landfall were not forecast well enough to help prepare.

Six years later, Colonel Duckworth hopped into his training plane, and –in a moment of bravado- flew into a storm.  Eventually, storm forecasts were improved thanks to satellites, advanced computer models and those jokers who –to this day- strap themselves into planes and fly directly into hurricanes.

Idiots…..

…and I’m one of ‘em.     Eric and I made it back just fine, thanks.  Hurricane Earl, a raggedy storm that dropped a great deal of rainfall along the Gulf coast, wasn’t a monster storm that left its mark in history books.  That’s easy to write now, but flying into that storm -sometimes 500 feet above the water, sometimes a few thousand feet high- was an experience I’ll never forget.  The WC-130 jerked up and down, dropping hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds, only to climb back up moments later, engines whining with the strain.  The only victim in all of this? A photographer from an Alabama television station who spent most of the thirteen hours we were aloft losing his breakfast (and the previous day’s dinner, lunch and whatever snacks he’d enjoyed) in the rest-room in the rear of the plane.   Eventually we landed -diverted to an Air Force Base in Georgia because of the threat the storm posed to Keesler- and produced a story that -I’m sure- is somewhere buried in the dusty archives of WKRG TV.

Check out these links.  Be forewarned – some of this stuff will have you lost in the ‘net for hours, tracking hurricanes, reading stories about the Long Island Express of ’38, and watching films and videos of coastal storms.

http://www.weather.com/weather/hurricanecentral/tracker-historical

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/hurricane/

http://www.hurricanehunters.com/

And for a great description -with a few more pictures- of the storm, check this out:

http://rightweather.com/2012/09/september-21-anniversary-of-the-1938-hurricane/

Finally, a look at newsreel film of the storm and the Work Project Administration’s efforts to clean up.  The music, the narration, the overall cheesiness…it’s unspeakably bad.  It’s also how people -to some extent- received their news.  If you have ten minutes, check it out…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cbINb4fkebM

 

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