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Didn’t Believe the Barometer

On September 21, 1938, a hurricane of monstrous proportions struck the East Coast of the United States. William Manchester, writing about it his book The Glory and the Dream, says that “the great wall of brine struck the beach between Babylon and Patchogue (Long Island, New York) at 2:30 p.m. So mighty was the power of that first storm wave that its impact registered on a seismograph in Sitka, Alaska, while the spray, carried northward at well over a hundred miles an hour, whitened windows in Montpelier, Vermont.

As the torrential 40-foot wave approached, some Long Islanders jumped into cars and raced inland. No one knows precisely how many lost that race for their lives, but the survivors later estimated that they had to keep the speedometer over 50 mph all the way.” For some reason the meteorologists—who should have known what was coming and should have warned the public—seemed strangely blind to the impending disaster. Either they ignored their instruments or simply couldn’t believe them. And, of course, if the forecasters were blind, the public was too.

“Among the striking stories which later came to light,” says Manchester, “was the experience of a Long Islander who had bought a barometer a few days earlier in a New York store. It arrived in the morning post September 21, and to his annoyance the needle pointed below 29, where the dial read, ‘Hurricanes and Tornadoes.’ He shook it and banged it against the wall; the needle wouldn’t budge. Indignant, he repacked it, drove to the post office, and mailed it back. While he was gone, his house blew away.” That’s the way we are. If we can’t cope with the forecast, we blame the barometer. Or ignore it. Or throw it away!

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