During the week of September 18, 1938, no one in Lowell was worried about a hurricane. The public’s attention was focused on two things: Germany was about to invade Czechoslovakia and on that Tuesday (September 20) voters would go to the polls for the state primary election. Lowell voters were especially interested in the outcome of the Republican primary since the city’s mayor, Dewey Archambault, sought the nomination for Lieutenant Governor.
There was concern that Tuesday’s forecast – “rain and possibly cooler tonight and tomorrow” – might keep voter turnout low. Besides that weather forecast, Tuesday’s newspaper carried a small story, “Florida Breathes Easier as Hurricane Heads From Coast” which predicted that the storm “was expected to change its course sufficiently to pass well to the eastward of Cape Hatteras region.”
While the storm did skirt past North Carolina, on Wednesday, September 21, it slammed first into Long Island and then into the Rhode Island coast before striking Massachusetts, leaving death and devastation in its wake. Lowell was not spared. A huge headline in an “extra” edition of Wednesday night’s newspaper screamed “The Hurricane: National Guard Controls All Downtown” with this as the first paragraph:
Lowell went under martial law tonight as the city was ripped, torn and laid waste by the worst gale in its history. Terrifying in its intensity and rising in whining crescendo to high pitched moans, the wind hit with hurricane force shortly before 5 p.m. Sweeping in from due east, it rapidly stepped up its velocity to a maximum of 65 miles an hour. It whipsawed every living thing, toppled trees by the hundreds, smashed roofs, doors and windows, menaced life and limb and ran up a property toll that will run into thousands of dollars. As far as can be learned, there has been no loss of life, but scores have been injured by falling trees and flying glass.
That last part of the story proved incorrect. Twenty-one year old Walter Ouellette of Kendall Road in Tyngsborough was killed in the storm:
Shortly after 6:30 o’clock last night, Ouellette, a utility emergency worker, was knocked from a pole in Tyngsboro by a falling tree. He died soon after arrival at the Lowell General hospital from a fractured skull and other injuries. The man was doing emergency work when the tree crashed against the pole on which he was working, throwing him to the ground under it.
Another young man, William Zieleniski, age 14 of 32 Wamesit Street in Lowell, was seriously injured when he was struck by a section of roof blown off a building while walking on Rogers Street. “The object struck the boy in the face, knocking his left eye out, and badly mangling his face.” Zielensiski was rushed to St John’s Hospital. In the midst of an operation to repair the damage, the hospital lost electrical power so the doctors had to complete the procedure “with the aid of flashlights and candles.” Many others were injured by flying glass and debris.
Today we’re fortunate that Hurricane Earl is expected to pass by us far enough to the east to avoid any serious damage in Lowell. The story of the Hurricane of 1938, however, reminds us that we’re not immune from that type of force of nature and that prudent precautions are well advised.