Facing the Storm Before the Calm

Dear Fellow Storm-chasers,

In the first service this past Sunday, I introduced my ‘pastoral prayer’ by talking about the hurricane of September 21, 1938. A cyclone was first spotted by a ship captain on September 9 off of the coast of Cape Verde Islands; as it expanded into hurricane force, the captain of a Brazilian freighter radioed its location just northeast of Puerto Rico. By then it was presumed to be a category 3 storm and was headed for the east coast of Florida. Hours before the predicted landfall, the storm turned north, and Florida was spared. Weather forecasters presumed the storm would continue northeast and dissipate over the Atlantic; they were wrong.

Late September 20, the storm had gained speed, traveling at 70 mph, the fastest moving hurricane in recorded history. It had also grown to a category 5, and suddenly, with a westward turn, the unnamed storm slammed into the south coast of Long Island at high tide, creating a 40-foot wall of water. The surge completely engulfed homes of unwarned and unprepared Long Islanders. The storm continued north by northwest across New England, leaving in its wake devastated coastal and inland towns. Boston weather stations recorded the then highest-ever wind speed, clocking in at 186 mph. Still moving at speeds in excess of 60 mph, communication lines were destroyed, making it impossible to warn communities in its path. The hurricane continued to unleash destruction to communities as far north as Quebec until the storm once again moved east and dissipated over the North Atlantic.

Over 700 deaths were documented in the storm’s aftermath; 9,000 homes were destroyed on the south coast of Long Island alone. Downtown Boston recorded 13 feet of water in the streets. Before the days of radar, satellites or even weather buoys, there was little anyone could do to warn or prepare unsuspecting victims. One newspaper account estimated $100M in damages (1938 dollar value), and given the unrecorded casualties, some estimated the death toll to be over 800 souls.

Few papers reported the hurricane story. The nation’s attention was riveted on Hitler’s preparations to invade and annex the Sudetenland, a military conquest he completed 19 days after the storm.

Yesterday, Diane Stapleton’s children’s sermon was about a pencil-maker who gave final instructions to his craftsmanship before their packaging. In the middle of her story, one of our children asked, “Did this really happen?” 

My musing before the pastoral prayer and this morning swirls around the purpose and power of story. Over the past few weeks, we have certainly heard a great deal about hurricanes and their devastation, moving stories that tug at our hearts. Likewise, I was moved by the story of the loving pencil-maker who so wanted his creations to do meaningful things in the world.

We are, I fear, creatures who devour accounts that tug at our hearts, but we move on to the next account before we consider our actions. More information regarding shootings, storms, fires and pencils well up feelings, but how do these narratives alter the choices we make? If at the end of an essay, or news account, or children’s story, we are not motivated to drop our indifference and see one another as the lovely fragile creatures we are, then it makes no difference whether the story documents fact or merely tells a good tale.

There is an important distinction between fact and fiction, but there is, I believe, a deep distinction between stories that move our hearts and stories that alter our words, our hands, our choices. And while we will not be receiving an offering for Long Island hurricane relief, even accounts of devastations long ago can inspire today’s compassions.

Yet we can be connected. During that raging New England storm, there was a young mother struggling to make it to the hospital; she had gone into labor, and her husband, a railroad worker, was many miles away. There, amidst surging waters, power failures and a sea of devastation, she arrived at the hospital, wet, frightened and overwhelmed. Thankfully, this young mother survived and gave birth to a little baby girl who grew into the woman we know as Jane Herndon.*

Musing over the connections between fact and faith, I remain with love,

Jonathan Krogh

Your Pastor

*Jane Herndon is one of the many fantastic deacons at First Presbyterian Church of La Grange.