The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 19, 2008


The Great Hurricane of 1938: 70 years later

Looking from Carlisle Center down Bedford Road, trees and utility poles show the damage caused by the hurricane’s powerful winds. (Photo courtesy of Carlisle Historical Society)

Fall is lovely in Carlisle, but it is the peak season for hurricanes. Starting in late August the steering currents and weather patterns of the Atlantic present favorable conditions for storms to ride up the eastern seaboard, with some making landfall on the New England coast.

Seventy years ago, on September 21, 1938, an unnamed hurricane roared into the area, plowing a destructive path from Long Island to Canada. Now called “The Great Hurricane” or the “Long Island Express,” it traveled northward from Long Island through Connecticut, up through Massachusetts west of Carlisle, which unfortunately brought in winds from the eastern, and strongest, circulation. The aftermath of the storm was shattered trees, damaged and destroyed buildings, downed communication lines and impassible roads.

Surprise storm

New England was caught unprepared. The hurricane was first noted by ships in the Caribbean on September 13 and eventually grew to a category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 160 mph (and gusts over 180 mph). Forecasting was an imperfect science at the time, and though officials thought it would turn east away from the coast, it instead moved quickly northward and made landfall on the shores of Long Island, Rhode Island, and Connecticut at high tide. Over 600 died in New England, with a cost in today’s dollars of over six billion dollars.

The hurricane was a category 3 with winds of 120 mph, toppling huge trees onto buildings, and blowing away smaller structures. The 1938 Town of Carlisle report noted the hurricane “struck the town with terrific violence……and stopped all communication so effectually that the school had to be closed for several days.”

Witnesses to the storm

After the hurricane, from left to right, Barbara Daisy, Barbara Dutton, Beverly Dutton and Bobby Daisy pose before a large toppled tree in Carlisle Center. (Photo courtesy of Carlisle Historical Society)

Barbara (Daisy) Culkins and Bob Daisy, who grew up in Carlisle and whose family owned the store and service station in the center, remember the storm. Culkins, who was seven at the time, said she didn’t remember much about the storm. “Of course the fire station was where the police station is now,” she noted. She does remember she couldn’t go to school for a while, but “that was okay because I never liked school,” she said.

Her brother Bob was four when the storm hit. “We didn’t have any warning,” he said. “We didn’t know what was coming, and then the wind started blowing. It was quite exciting for a young boy. I was probably more excited than scared.”

After the storm every road was blocked with fallen trees, including Lowell Street to Chelmsford, Daisy said. His strongest memory was of a huge tree lying across Lowell Street near North Road. “It was too big for the town to handle,” he said. In those days Carlisle didn’t own the heavy equipment needed to clear the roads of trees and branches. “I remember trees down by Frankie Wahlen’s house, across the street from the Clark Farm.”

The Daisy family lived above the store on the second floor. At the time there were fewer trees in the center of town, so “we weren’t in danger,” at the store, Daisy said. “We had quite a few people spending the night on the floor of our store, but I don’t remember anyone being hurt.”

Asked how it compared to later hurricanes, Daisy said, “It’s the only one I remember. It was the greatest storm I remember.” His father, Fred Daisy, pumped gas for customers by hand for weeks until electricity was restored. The storm made extra work for his dad, he said, “but no one went hungry.

Photos of the damage in Carlisle can be seen in the book, Images of America, Carlisle published by the Carlisle Historical Society. The Society, located in the Heald House on Concord Road, owns a 1937 painting by Gerd Pedersen that shows the house and the massive elm next to it, which was uprooted a year later during the hurricane. It took most of the following year to clear the town of fallen trees and repair the town’s infrastructure.

Is Carlisle prepared for another storm?

If such a storm hit today, how would the town fare? We put the question to David Flannery, who is the Emergency Management Director (EMD) for Carlisle. “We have the appropriate plans in place,” he said. Though it is difficult to be completely prepared for a “large scale disaster,” resources are available from the state and federal levels, he said. “We work closely with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) Region 1 to update plans, coordinate information, develop communications systems and maintain resources,” he added.

Carlisle has both a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and a state required Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP). “Portions of the plan are not public due to the nature of the information such as critical infrastructures” because of Homeland Security laws, explained Flannery.

No town shelter

Flannery said that due to the lack of emergency power in the town’s public buildings or the churches there isn’t a designated town shelter. “We have an agreement with the Red Cross to provide services in these buildings if we have lights, heat and water facilities,” Flannery said. Since 2001 the town safety officials and boards have discussed the need for a large generator, but due to the cost no action has yet been taken. “The Board of Health has been working on plans to educate citizens about sheltering at home,” Flannery added. “We are also developing a database on the most vulnerable and at risk people in the community.” Flannery said without power the town would rely on FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency) to bring food and water to the town. He noted residents should be prepared to deal with the loss of power for two to three days in their homes.

Emergency services

During an emergency a command post, called the Emergency Operation Center (EOC) would be staffed 24 hours a day by Carlisle residents. During a hurricane, phone lines most likely will be down and other forms of communication equipment such as cell phones, radios, and email would be used by the EOC staff to communicate with safety officials. In the case of a medical, fire, or police emergency, the town would rely on “local resources and mutual aid from neighboring communities,” explained Flannery.

There is no way to stop a storm such as the Great Hurricane of 1938. But with ample warning and with solid emergency plans in place, Carlisle has more of a chance to recover quickly. In addition to the town resources, residents should have their own family emergency plans. For tips on setting up your own “family command center,” go to

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a web site, which follows current hurricane activity.

If you are interested in the history of hurricanes, NOAA has data on storm strikes through 2007 at The site contains more than 150 years of Atlantic hurricane data and nearly 60 years of eastern North Atlantic Ocean data. There are also links to detailed reports on the life history and effects of U.S. tropical cyclones since 1958. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito