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New England Hurricane
Category 5 hurricane (SSHS)

Weather map from September 21, 1938 featuring the storm
Formed September 10, 1938
Dissipated September 22, 1938
160 mph (260 km/h) (1-minute sustained)
Lowest pressure 938 mbar (hPa; 27.7 inHg)
Fatalities 682 to 800 direct
Damage $306 million (1938 USD)
$4.7 billion (2009 USD)
Bahamas, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, southern Quebec
Part of the
1938 Atlantic hurricane season

The New England Hurricane of 1938 (or Great New England Hurricane or Long Island Express or simply The Great Hurricane of 1938) 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 [1] on Long Island on September 21. The hurricane was estimated to have killed between 682 and 800 people,[2] damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes, and caused property losses estimated at US$306 million ($4.7 billion in 2009 dollars).[3] In 1951, damaged trees and buildings were still to be seen in the affected areas.[4] To date it remains the most powerful, costliest and deadliest hurricane in New England history.



Before the 1938 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. Significant storms prior to the 1938 hurricane included:

  • 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 pummeled the coastline, completely removing the Long Island resort town of Hog Island (New York).

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 stora 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.

Meteorological history

Storm path

The storm formed as a Cape Verde-type hurricane in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. It reached Category 5 status east of the Bahamas around September 20 before turning northward. This storm was extremely unusual in that its forward speed approached 70 mph (110 km/h). The unusual rapid movement allowed the hurricane to travel far to the north before it had a chance to weaken over cooler waters,[5] which earned it the nickname "Long Island Express."

Initially, the hurricane was forecast by the U.S. National Weather Service to curve out into the Atlantic Ocean. However, a young research forecaster with the U.S. Weather Bureau doubted this prediction, concluding that the storm would track due north. Because the official forecasts expected mere overcast conditions, residents were unaware of the impending storm.[6] Defying these projections, the cyclone made landfall in Suffolk County on Long Island, New York on September 21, 1938 as a strong Category 3 hurricane on the present-day Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale with a central pressure of 946 mbar (hPa).[7] The hurricane hit Long Island around 3:30 p.m., which was just a few hours before astronomical high tide. At this time the eye was about 50 miles (80 km) across and the hurricane was about 500 miles (800 km) wide.[8] It then traveled across Long Island Sound into Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and finally into Canada while still moving at an unusually high speed.[9]


The majority of the storm damage was from storm surge and wind. Damage is estimated at $6 billion (2004 USD),[10] 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.[11]

Approximately 600 people died in the storm in New England, most in Rhode Island, and up to 100 people elsewhere in the path of the storm.[12] An additional 708 people were reported injured.[13]

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.[14] 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) of rain.


New York

New York City caught the western edge of the hurricane. Winds up to 75 mph blew throughout Manhattan causing the East River to flow three blocks inland. Power was lost throughout the entire city. Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau Counties, located on the western end of Long Island, were hammered with stronger hurricane force winds in excess of 100 mph but survived the worst wrath of the storm surge due to being on the storm's weaker west side.[15]

Eastern Long Island suffered the worst wrath of the storm. The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach, was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also lifted out to sea: around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned.[16] 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.

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 Ocean. The storm toppled the landmark steeple of the tallest building in Sag Harbor the Old Whaler's Church. [17] 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.

Rhode Island

The storm surge hit Westerly, Rhode Island at 3:50 p.m. EDT, resulting in 100 deaths there alone.[18]

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.[19 ]

The impact of the storm was strong enough to be recorded on seismographs in California.

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 wildlife refuge with no human inhabitants. The only structures lying directly on the coast that survived the storm were the immense stone mansions in Newport, mostly because the largest mansions were along the Cliff Walk, high above the waves, though several, including The Breakers and Carey Mansion (known at that time as Seaview Terrace) still bear scars from the high winds of the storm.

One of the more tragic stories related to the storm was that of the seven children who died after driver Norman Caswell abandoned their school bus while trying to cross a narrow causeway known as Mackerel Cove in Jamestown, Rhode Island. Halfway through the cove, the bus stalled; the children evacuated and formed a human chain, believing they would be safer. The chain broke and the children were washed away, later to be found at various locations along Narragansett Bay. The only survivors were Caswell and Clayton Chellis (whose sister perished and brother chose to ride home with friends instead, saving his life). Caswell was blamed by many in the town for the children's deaths and never drove the bus again.

A few miles from Conanicus Island, keeper Walter Eberly lost his life when Whale Rock lighthouse was swept off its base and into the raging waves. His body was never found.


Flooding in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut in the aftermath of the hurricane
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. 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.


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 to 6 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. 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 Hills Observatory registered sustained winds of 121 mph (195 km/h) and a peak gust of 186 mph (299 km/h).

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) in the process.

New Hampshire

Damage done to pine forests in Wolfeboro, NH, 1938, by Peter Roome

In New Hampshire, there was less damage than in other states. Only one inch (25 mm) of rain fell in Concord. But Peterborough was worse; total damage there was stated to be $500,000 (1938 USD, $6.5 million 2005 USD) and swept away 10 bridges. In all of New Hampshire, 13 people met their deaths.


The extratropical remnants of the hurricane tracked into southern Ontario. The system produced heavy rains and brought gusty winds, but overall damage was minimal.[20] Numerous trees were downed throughout the region due to the storm.[21]

Post 1938 Hurricanes

In contrast to the long span of relatively mild hurricane activity that preceded the 1938 hurricane, subsequent storm activity would prove to be much more frequent. In the ensuing years following the storm, the northeastern United States would get hit with a number hurricanes, notably 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, more recently Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and later Hurricane Bob in 1991.

See also

External links


  • Allen, Everett S. (1976). A Wind To Shake The World. Boston: Little & Brown. ISBN 0316034266.  
  • Burns, Cherie (2005). The Great Hurricane: 1938. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 087113893X.  
  • Scott, R. A. (2003). Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938. Boston: Little & Brown. ISBN 0316739111.  


  1. ^ The Great Hurricane of 1938 - The Long Island Express
  2. ^ Scotti, R. A.. "Sudden Sea — The Great Hurricane of 1938". Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 2003. Retrieved 2007-11-30.  
  3. ^ "The Great Hurricane of 1938". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-11-30.  
  4. ^ Lane, F.W. The Elements Rage (David & Charles 1966, ISBN ), p.16
  6. ^ Paul Douglas (2007). Restless Skies: The Ultimate Weather Book. Sterling Publishing Company. p. 26. ISBN 1402752237.  
  7. ^ The Most Intense Hurricanes in the United States 1851-2004
  8. ^ The Long Island Express: The Great Hurricane of 1938
  9. ^ PBS The Hurricane of '38
  10. ^ Costliest U.S. Hurricanes 1900-2004 (adjusted)
  11. ^ Ranked Using 2005 Inflation, Population, and Wealth Normalization
  12. ^ The Deadliest Atlantic Tropical Cyclones, 1492-1996
  13. ^ Damage Caused by Storm
  14. ^
  15. ^ Scotti, R. A.. "Sudden Sea — The Great Hurricane of 1938". Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 2003. Retrieved 2007-11-30.  
  16. ^ Alistair Cooke, 'Hurricanes,' 23 September 1988, Letter from America (Penguin: London, 2004)
  17. ^ Push is on to rebuild church steeple — East Hampton Press by Oliver Peterson — June 13, 2007
  18. ^ 1938 Hurricane - September 21, 1938
  19. ^ Weather History of the '38 Hurricane
  20. ^ Staff Writer (September 7, 2005). "History of Tropical Cyclones in Canada". Canadian Hurricane Centre. Retrieved May 20, 2009.  
  21. ^ Nicholas K. Coch (2005). "Hurricane Hazards in the Northeast -A Re-appraisal based on recent research". Fairfield University. Retrieved May 20, 2009.  


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