In an effort to get residents to wake up and pay attention to Hurricane Sandy, the governor of Connecticut just said that Sandy might be as bad was the worst hurricane ever to hit New England–the hurricane of 1938.
The 1938 hurricane hit Long Island and then moved on to Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont, killing 600-800 people along the way.
The hurricane was so devastating that several shore communities simply disappeared, along with the people who lived in them. Providence, Newport, Hartford, and other cities were hit with severe flooding (see below). And the death toll was made worse because no hurricane warnings were issued: Forecasters expected the hurricane to turn east and proceed out to sea.
Photo: Providence Public Library
As the Wikipedia article below illustrates, the 1938 hurricane was similar in some ways to Sandy, but, so far, anyway, it was far more powerful (Category 5 versus Category 1). It also moved far more quickly, which increased the perceived speed of the winds on the eastern side of the hurricane. The centre of Sandy is also projected to hit the Jersey Shore, not New England. For the latest on Sandy, see here >
The Great Hurricane Of 1938 (Wikipedia)
The New England Hurricane of 1938 (or Great New England Hurricane, Yankee Clipper, Long Island Express, or simply the Great Hurricane) was the first major hurricane to strike New England since 1869. The storm formed near the coast of Africa in September of the 1938 Atlantic hurricane season, becoming a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale before making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Long Island on September 21. The hurricane was estimated to have killed between 682 and 800 people, damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes, and caused property losses estimated at US$306 million ($4.7 Billion in 2012). Even as late as 1951, damaged trees and buildings were still seen in the affected areas. It remains the most powerful, costliest and deadliest hurricane in recent New England history, eclipsed in landfall intensity perhaps only by the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635.
Before the 1938 New England hurricane, it had been several decades since a hurricane of any significance adversely affected the northeastern Atlantic coastline. Nevertheless, history has shown that several severe hurricanes have affected the Northeast, although with much less frequency in comparison to areas of the Gulf, Florida, and southeastern Atlantic coastlines.
- The Great September Gale of 1815 (the term hurricane was not yet common in the American vernacular), which hit New York City directly as a Category 3 hurricane, caused extensive damage and created an inlet that separated the Long Island resort towns of the Rockaways and Long Beach into two separate barrier islands.
- The 1821 Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane, a Category 4 storm which made four separate landfalls in Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and southern New England. The storm created the highest recorded storm surge in Manhattan of nearly 13 feet and severely impacted the farming regions of Long Island and southern New England.
- The 1869 Saxby Gale affected areas in Northern New England, decimating the Maine coastline and the Canadian Outer Banks. It was the last major hurricane to affect New England until the 1938 storm.
- The 1893 New York hurricane, a Category 2 storm, directly hit the city itself, causing a great storm surge that pummelled the coastline, completely removing the Long Island resort town of Hog Island.
The years spanning 1893 to 1938 saw much demographic change in the Northeast as large influxes of European immigrants settled in cities and towns throughout New York and New England, many of whom knew little, if anything, about hurricanes. Most people at the time associated hurricanes with the warmer tropical regions off the Gulf Coast and southern North Atlantic waters off the Florida coastline, and not the colder Atlantic waters off New York and New England. The only tropical storms to affect the area in recent years had been weak remnant storms. A more common weather phenomenon was a noreaster, which is a powerful low-pressure storm common in the Northeast during fall and winter. Although Noreasters can produce winds that are similar to those in hurricanes, they do not produce the storm surge that proved to be the 1938 storm’s greatest killer. By 1938, most of the earlier storms were hardly remembered.
Storm path The storm was first spotted south of the Cape Verde Islands on September 10. Over the next 10 days, it steadily gathered strength and slowly tracked to the west-northwest. By September 20, while centered east of the Bahamas, the hurricane is estimated to have reached Category 5 intensity. In response to a deep trough over Appalachia, the hurricane veered northward, sparing the Bahamas, Florida, the Carolinas, and the Mid-Atlantic. At the same time, a high pressure system was centered north of Bermuda, preventing the hurricane from making an eastward turn out to sea. Thus, the hurricane was effectively squeezed to the north between the two weather systems. This conclusion was not reached merely with the wisdom of hindsight. As described by Scott Mandia, professor of physical sciences, State University of New York, in an article on this hurricane, there was a lone voice in the wilderness of the New York meteorological offices crying out a warning of hurricane for Long Island. In Professor Mandia’s words, “Charlie Pierce, a young research forecaster for the Bureau concluded that the storm would not continue to move northeast and curve out to sea but would instead track due north. He was overruled by more senior meteorologists and the official forecast was for cloudy skies and gusty conditions – but no hurricane (Francis, 1998). Because the official forecast was not cause for alarm, even as the winds picked up speed and the waves rolled in, nobody realised that a catastrophe was only a few hours away.”
Late on September 20, this set-up caused the storm’s forward speed to increase substantially. In fact, the forward speed of the hurricane would ultimately reach 70 mph, the highest forward velocity ever recorded in the annals of hurricanes. This extreme forward motion, being in the same general direction as the winds on the eastern side of the storm as it proceeded north, caused the perceived wind speed in areas east of the eye to be far higher than would be the case with a hurricane of more typical forward speed. (Winds rotate counter-clockwise around all low pressure systems in the Northern hemisphere, thus winds on the right side of a hurricane–“right” being relative to the direction of motion of the storm itself—are moving in the same general direction as the hurricane. Therefore, the forward motion increases the observed wind speed for points to the right of the eye of the hurricane and decreases the observed wind speed for points to the left of the eye, but in a complex way that defies crude addition or subtraction of the forward motion from the “intrinsic” wind speed of the hurricane.) During the early hours of September 21, the storm, centered several hundred miles to the southeast of Cape Hatteras, weakened slightly. By 8:30 am EST, the hurricane was centered approximately 100 miles (160 km) due east of Cape Hatteras, and its forward speed had increased to well over 50 m.p.h. This rapid movement did not give the hurricane a sufficient amount of time to weaken over the cooler waters before it reached Long Island. During the 9:00 am EST hour, the hurricane sped through the Virginia tidewater. Between 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm EST, the New Jersey coastline and New York City caught the western edge of the hurricane. At the same time, weather conditions began to deteriorate rapidly on Long Island as well as along the southern New England coast. The full force of the hurricane started to reach Long Island after 2:30 pm EST, and the eye made landfall at Bayport in Suffolk County shortly after 3:00 pm EST. By 4:00 pm EST, the eye had crossed Long Island Sound and was making a second landfall just east of New Haven, Connecticut.
Modern analyses reveal that the hurricane was at Category 3 intensity at both landfalls and place the maximum sustained winds in the 120–125 m.p.h. range. After crossing Long Island Sound, the hurricane sped inland. By 5:00 pm EST, the eye moved into western Massachusetts, and by 6:00 pm EST, the hurricane reached Vermont. Both Westfield, Massachusetts and Dorset, Vermont reported calm conditions and partial clearing during passage of the eye, which is a rather unusual occurrence for a New England hurricane. As the hurricane continued into northern Vermont, it began to lose tropical characteristics. Still carrying hurricane-force winds, the storm crossed into Quebec at approximately 10:00 pm EST, while transitioning into a post-tropical low. The post-tropical remnants dissipated over northern Ontario a few days later.
The majority of the storm damage was from storm surge and wind. Damage is estimated at $6 billion (2004 US$), making it among the most costly hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland. It is estimated that if an identical hurricane struck today it would cause $39.2 billion (2005 USD) in damage.
In total, 4,500 cottages, farms, and other homes were reported destroyed. An additional 25,000 homes were damaged. Other damages included 26,000 automobiles destroyed, and 20,000 electrical poles toppled. The hurricane also devastated the forests of the Northeast, knocking down an estimated 2 billion trees in New York and New England. Freshwater flooding was minimal, however, as the quick passage of the storm decreased local rainfall totals, with only a few small areas receiving over 10 inches (250 mm).
Maryland and Delaware
The western periphery of the hurricane brought heavy rain and gusty winds to Delaware and southeastern Maryland. Damage, if any, is believed to have been minimal.
The western side of the hurricane caused sustained tropical storm-force winds, high waves, and storm surge along much of the New Jersey coast. In Atlantic City, the surge destroyed much of the boardwalk. Additionally, the surge inundated several coastal communities; Wildwood was under 3 feet (0.91 m) of water at the height of the storm. The maximum recorded wind gust was 70 m.p.h. at Sandy Hook.
New York City received a glancing blow from the hurricane. Wind gusts up to 75 m.p.h. blew throughout Manhattan causing the East River to flow three blocks inland. The wind reportedly caused the Empire State Building to sway. Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau counties, located on the western end of Long Island, were hammered with wind gusts in excess of 100 m.p.h., but escaped the worst of the wind and storm surge due to being on the storm’s weaker west side. Power was lost throughout the city.
Eastern Long Island experienced the worst of the storm. The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated, resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema in Westhampton was also swept out to sea; about 20 people at a matinee, and the theatre — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the East End of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road. As a result of the hurricane, the Westhampton Beach School District changed its school’s nickname from the Green Wave to the Hurricanes.
The surge rearranged the sand at the Cedar Point Lighthouse so that the island became connected to what is now Cedar Point County Park. The surging water created the present-day Shinnecock Inlet by carving out a large section of barrier island separating Shinnecock Bay from the Atlantic. The storm toppled the landmark steeple of the tallest building in Sag Harbor, the Old Whaler’s Church. The steeple has not been rebuilt. Wading River suffered substantial damage.
In Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island, the storm blew down the movie theatre located on Front Street.
The tide was even higher than usual because of the Autumnal Equinox and full moon. The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet (5 m) across most of the Long Island and Connecticut coast, with 18- to 25-foot (8 m) tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The storm surge was especially violent along the Rhode Island shore, sweeping hundreds of summer cottages out to sea. As the surge drove northward through Narragansett Bay, it was restricted by the Bay’s funnel shape and rose to nearly 16 feet (15.8) feet above normal spring tides, resulting in more than 13 feet (4.0 m) of water in some areas of downtown Providence. Several motorists were drowned in their autos. Due in part to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression many of the stores of downtown Providence were looted by mobs, often before the flood waters had fully subsided.
Many homes and structures along the coast were destroyed, as well as many structures inland along the hurricane’s path. Entire beach communities on the coast of Rhode Island were obliterated. Napatree Point, a small cape that housed nearly 40 families between the Atlantic Ocean and Little Narragansett Bay just off of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, was completely swept away. Today, Napatree is a wildlife refuge with no human inhabitants. One house in Charlestown, Rhode Island was lifted and deposited across the street, where it stood, inhabited, until it was demolished in August 2011. Even to this day, concrete staircases and boardwalk bases, destroyed by the ’38 hurricane can be found when sand levels on some beaches are low.
Tobacco barn in Connecticut, 1938, by Sheldon Dick Eastern Connecticut was in the eastern side of the hurricane. Long Island acted as a buffer against large ocean surges, but the waters of Long Island Sound rose to unimaginable heights. Small shoreline towns to the east of New Haven had nearly complete destruction from the water and winds. To this day, the 1938 hurricane holds the record for the worst natural disaster in Connecticut’s 350-year history.
In the beach towns of Clinton, Westbrook, and Old Saybrook, buildings were found as wreckage across coastal roads. Actress Katharine Hepburn waded to safety from her Old Saybrook beach home, narrowly escaping death. She stated in her 1991 book that 95% of her personal belongings were either lost or destroyed, including her 1932 Oscar which was later found intact. In Old Lyme, beach cottages were flattened or swept away. At Stonington a New York, New Haven & Hartford passenger train was stranded on a causeway; along the Stonington shorefront, buildings were swept off their foundations and found two miles (3 km) inland. Rescuers later searching for survivors in the homes in Mystic found live fish and crabs in kitchen drawers and cabinets.
New London was first swept by the winds and storm surge; then the waterfront business district caught fire and burned out of control for 10 hours. Stately homes along Ocean Beach were leveled by the storm surge. The permanently anchored 240-ton lightship at the head of New London Harbor was found on a sand bar two miles (3 km) away.
Interior sections of the state experienced widespread flooding as the hurricane’s torrential rains fell on soil already saturated from previous storms. The Connecticut River was forced out of its banks, inundating cities and towns from Hartford, to Middletown.
African-American novelist Ann Petry drew on her personal experiences of the hurricane in Old Saybrook in her 1947 novel, Country Place. Although the novel is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Petry identified the 1938 storm as the source for the storm that is at the centre of her narrative.
The eye of the storm followed the Connecticut River north into Massachusetts, where the winds and flooding killed 99 people. In Springfield, the river rose six to 10 feet (3 m) above flood stage, causing significant damage. Up to six inches (152 mm) of rain fell across western Massachusetts, which, combined with over four inches (102 mm) that had fallen a few days earlier, produced widespread flooding. In Chicopee, flash flooding on the Chicopee River washed away the Chicopee Falls Bridge, while the Connecticut River flooded most of the Willimansett section. Residents of Ware were stranded for days and relied on air-dropped food and medicine. After the flood receded, the town’s Main Street was a chasm in which sewer pipes could be seen.
To the east, the surge left Falmouth and New Bedford under eight feet of water. Two-thirds of all the boats in New Bedford harbor sank. The Blue Hill Observatory registered sustained winds of 121 mph (195 km/h) and a peak gust of 186 mph (299 km/h), which is the strongest hurricane-related surface wind gust ever recorded in the United States of America.
The New Haven Railroad from New Haven to Providence was particularly hard hit, as countless bridges along the Shore Line were destroyed or flooded, severing rail connections to badly affected cities (such as Westerly, Rhode Island) in the process.
The hurricane slammed into Vermont as a Category 1 storm at approximately 6:00 pm EST. Hurricane-force winds caused extensive damage to trees, buildings, and power lines. Over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of public roads were blocked, and it took months for crews to reopen some of the roads. Despite the damage, the storm killed only five people in Vermont. Until Hurricane Irene in 2011 (which had weakened to a tropical storm by the time it struck Vermont), the 1938 hurricane was the only tropical cyclone to make a direct hit on Vermont in its recorded history.
Damage done to pine forests in Wolfeboro, NH, 1938, by Peter Roome Even though the storm centre tracked further west through Vermont, New Hampshire received appreciable damage. As in Vermont, very high winds brought down numerous trees and power lines, but rainfall totals in New Hampshire were significantly less than those in other states. Only one inch (25 mm) of rain fell in Concord. But damage at Peterborough was worse; total damage there was stated to be $500,000 (1938 USD, $6.5 million 2005 USD), which included the destruction of 10 bridges. Much of the lower downtown burned because floodwaters prevented firefighters from reaching and extinguishing the blaze. Other communities also suffered considerable damage to forest resources. In New Hampshire, 13 people perished. At the Mt. Washington observatory, peak 5-minute sustained winds reached 136 m.p.h.
As the hurricane was transitioning into an extratropical cyclone, it tracked into southern Quebec. When the system initially crossed into Canada, it continued to produce heavy rain and very strong winds, but interaction with land had taken its toll. Nevertheless, the hurricane managed to blow down numerous trees throughout the region. Otherwise, damage was generally minimal.
Post 1938 Hurricanes
In contrast to the long span of relatively mild hurricane activity preceding the 1938 hurricane, later storm activity was much more frequent. Since 1938 the northeastern United States was struck by the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, Hurricane Carol, Hurricane Edna, and Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the flooding remnants of Hurricane Connie, Hurricane Diane, Hurricane Ione in 1955, Hurricane Donna in 1960, Hurricane Gloria in 1985, Hurricane Bob in 1991, and Hurricane Irene in 2011.
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