The New England Hurricane of 1938 was one of the most devastating natural disasters to ever hit New England. It is also known as the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, the Long Island Express and the Great Hurricane of 1938. It caused massive amounts of property damage throughout southern New England and claimed hundreds of lives. Another storm of that magnitude has not occurred in the area in living memory.
The storm system that would eventually become the New England Hurricane of 1938 formed near the islands of Cape Verde, off of the coast of Africa, in early September. The storm system then traveled across the Atlantic for more than one week before wind speeds of 160 mph were recorded to the east of the Bahamas on September 19, 1938. Instead of making landfall in Florida, as was expected, the hurricane blew north and was seen off of the coast of North Carolina around 9:00 a.m. on September 21. It continued north at an astounding speed of 60 miles per hour.
The New England Hurricane of 1938 hit Suffolk County, New York on the afternoon of September 21. By the time it had made its way to Long Island, New York, the eye of the storm was approximately 50 miles wide. It then made its way to Milford, Connecticut and into western Massachusetts. It left massive amounts of destruction along its path.
The high winds of the New England Hurricane of 1938 caused property damage to homes and businesses and caused trees and powerlines to go down. Some areas were without power for weeks after the storm. Sustained winds of 121 miles per hour were recorded at the Blue Hills Observatory in Milton, Massachusetts. A gust of 186 mile an hour wind was also recorded there. These are some of the highest winds to ever be recorded on Earth with an anemometer.
During the time that the New England Hurricane of 1938 hit, the tides along the coast of New England were extremely high, due to the fall equinox. When the storm surges occurred, they left parts of Providence, Rhode Island under roughly 20 feet of water. Narangansett Bay saw surges of up to 15 feet and parts of coastal Massachusetts were inundated with up to eight feet of water. Rhode Island was hit the worst, however. There were more than 390 deaths recorded there.
Serious river flooding also posed a problem in many areas. The New England Hurricane of 1938 dumped up to 17 inches of rain in the Connecticut River Valley. The river reached 35.4 feet in Hartford. That’s 19.4 feet over what would be considered a flood. Parts of Massachusetts also suffered from flooding. This was also due to the fact that the area had been experiencing significant rainfall, even before the hurricane hit.
The New England Hurricane of 1938 caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, by 1938 standards. Five hundred sixty four people were killed and another 1,700 people were injured. Two thousand six hundred five ocean vessels were destroyed and another 3,369 were damaged. It took all of the communities that were affected quite some time to recover from their losses. Nonetheless, it is nearly certain that a hurricane of that magnitude would cause much more damage and loss of life, if it were to hit these highly populated areas today.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, retrieved 12/30/09, erh.noaa.gov/box/hurricane/hurricane1938.shtml
The Hurricane of ‘38, retrieved 12/29/09, pbs.org/wgbh/amex/hurricane38/maps/index.html