Swept Away


The Great Hurricane of 1938

By R.A. Scotti

Little, Brown -- 279pp -- $24.95

By the time Hurricane Isabel stormed ashore on Sept. 18, it had been downgraded to a Category 2 'cane. Even so, its fury left some 6 million people without power and claimed more than 30 lives. How much worse would the toll have been had Isabel retained her original Category 5 rating? Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938 by R.A. Scotti, which looks at the worst natural disaster in 300 years of New England history, provides a disturbing point of reference. In a few hours at the very end of summer, this extreme storm -- with gusts of 186 mph -- killed nearly 700 and wiped away entire beach communities on Long Island and Rhode Island.

Scotti is a novelist (and sister of BusinessWeek Senior Editor Ciro Scotti) who has heard survivors' stories since her youth in Rhode Island. And she has penned a fast-paced book built around a few of the most vivid tales. For example, there's the heartbreaking account of Joseph Matoes, who watched helplessly from the fields of his farm as the school bus carrying four of his children was marooned on the causeway leading across a nearby cove. No sooner had the driver ushered the children off the bus than they were swallowed up in the storm surge.

A splendid history, Sudden Sea might also be a harbinger, given meteorologists' warnings that we may face more violent Atlantic 'canes in coming years. At the very least, it might cause you to reconsider getting that beach house.

By William C. Symonds

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