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Retrospect: September 21, 1938 -- The Great New England Hurricane

When recalling memorable hurricanes from the past, two factors that often come to mind are the number of people killed and the amount of damage sustained. A third category to consider is the likelihood that a storm will affect a particular area. While recent hurricanes such as Hugo (1989), Andrew (1992), and Katrina (2005) are notable for both the number of lives they claimed and the amount of damage they caused, the areas they impacted the most—the Carolinas, south Florida, and the Gulf Coast—are generally considered to be “hurricane-prone” regions. What makes the Great New England Hurricane of September 21, 1938, different is the fact that it struck Long Island and New England with a force and fury rarely seen in those regions.

The 1938 storm formed on September 13 northwest of the Cape Verde Islands off the west coast of Africa and reached hurricane strength 3 days later. For several days, it moved west across the Atlantic with a forward speed of about 20 mph. Ships in the vicinity of the storm reported changes in winds and pressure that helped forecasters on land track its movement, although a lack of adequate observations at sea made the task of forecasting the hurricane’s next moves difficult at times.

As the storm turned toward the north on the 19th and 20th and strengthened into a powerful Category 5 hurricane, it might have appeared that this was part of a large curvature in its track that would eventually turn the hurricane back out toward the open waters of the Atlantic—a common path among Atlantic hurricanes that prevented any direct impact with the U.S. coast. But while forecasters attempted to stay 1 step ahead of the storm, they were caught off-guard when the hurricane instead accelerated and continued to move north on the 21st, striking Long Island and New England “a surprise blow,” according to a report issued by the System Engineering Department of the Consolidated Edison (ConEd) energy company in October 1944. The report noted that “although the Weather Bureau had warned of a gale along the Atlantic coast, when it was realized that this storm was continuing north, it was too late to get adequate hurricane warning to all
coastal areas.”

The storm made landfall on the south shore of Long Island as a Category 3 hurricane just before 3:00 p.m. The New York World-Telegram described—in almost poetic language at times—the destruction wrought by the hurricane as it moved across Long Island, dividing the damage into three distinct zones:

The first zone borders the ocean to a depth of 600 feet inland, the zone of utter desolation. Here was the storm’s first impact. All along the Saltaire shore line, with only the most trifling exceptions, houses and dunes have been flattened, even foundations dug away as if by a colossal road scraper. Four out of about forty cottages on the ocean front and on the back of it 2 or 3 skeletons remained. Otherwise the beach is scrubbed clean to a level just above the high tide line, so that the slightest added puff of breeze could send breakers dancing over the whole flat. The next zone inland also cleared of cottages and with deep scars gouged in the earth, still retains a foliage of clinging bayberry and scrub pine.... The next is the masterpiece of the storm, the vast tangle of wrecked homes, like a pile of packing cases awaiting a bonfire, imposing monuments heaped up to the memory of the storm.

James Kimball, the official in charge of the New York City Weather Bureau office, noted in his report that while winds from the storm reached 80 mph just north of New York’s Battery Park and 82 mph on Block Island, “[p]resumably the winds exceeded 100 miles per hour on the beach between Patchogue and Westhampton.” (Observers at the Blue Hill Observatory outside of Boston would later report wind gusts as high as 183 mph.)

After the storm crossed Long Island, it made a second landfall at 4:00 p.m. in southern Connecticut, with its 50-mile-diameter eye passing directly over New Haven. William Haggard—who would later become a meteorologist with the U.S. Navy and Weather Bureau—was a 17-year-old freshman at Yale in September 1938. He experienced the storm first-hand while driving from New Haven, Connecticut, to his parents’ home in  nearby Woodbridge.

“Of course, we didn’t know from the forecasts that day that we were going to have a hurricane,” he recalled during a 2007 interview. “As far as the Weather Bureau knew, the hurricane was somewhere down off of [Cape] Hatteras and it had accelerated through a data-void area and struck southern New England, really with minimal warning.” As the wind began “buffeting the car all over the road,” Haggard realized that he was in the midst of a hurricane. Upon reaching home, he ran upstairs to monitor the winds on the scale of a large anemometer that his father had helped him build several years earlier, based on plans published in Popular Mechanics. “I rushed up to see what it was, and it had gone around the full scale and started around the second time, and I’m not quite sure what it translated to, but the winds were something over 75 miles an hour.”

The storm’s center crossed into Massachusetts around 5:00 p.m., at which point its path curved slightly to the west, taking it across Vermont between 6:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. before moving into Canada, having weakened considerably by then.

Estimates at the time placed the storm’s property damage total at nearly $400 million, making it the nation’s costliest natural disaster to date. It also resulted in the deaths of more than 600 people.

In the decades that followed, many would speculate about the likelihood of another major hurricane hitting the New England coast or New York City area. When ConEd issued a report comparing the 1938 hurricane to one that affected the region in 1944, it cautioned that “there is no reason to believe that the frequency of such storms is increasing in this area,” noting that while “two hurricanes have been experienced in six years, this situation was duplicated in 1815 and 1821.” More recently, commercial weather information provider Accuweather made headlines in March 2006 when it posted an article on its Web site warning that a major hurricane could strike the northeast U.S. coast as early as that year, quoting forecaster Joe Bastardi’s statement that “the Northeast is staring down the barrel of a gun.” Additionally, The Weather Channel noted in an episode of its popular series, “It Could Happen Tomorrow,” that New York City missed a direct hit from the 1938 hurricane by just 75 miles. With the population increase that has occurred in the Northeast Corridor—especially on Long Island—over the past 70 years,
it’s clear that should another major hurricane strike the area again, its effects could be devastating. 


Weatherwise Contributing Editor SEAN POTTER is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist (CCM) and science writer in the Washington, D.C., area.

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