Atmosphere And Weather

The 1938 Long Island Express

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"The 1938 Long Island Express"
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On the morning of September 21, 1938, folks living along the eastern seaboard were pondering the saturated ground around their homes after recent heavy rains swelled rivers and streams. Little did they know that on this day, the autumnal equinox and the day of highest tides, and a full moon to boot, they would face a storm of immense speed and incredible destructive power. Named the Long Island Express for its 60-70 mph traveling speed, this category 3 hurricane slammed into Long Island at 3:30 p.m. Over the next few hours, the Express would kill 100 people in Long Island and another 600 as it moved up the New England coastline.

In 1938, there was little in the way of accurate communication and effective weather analysis of hurricanes. Without the hurricane hunter airplanes of today, forecasters relied on ship reports for information on storms. It was typical for ships at seas to report wind speed and barometric pressure to the Weather Bureau. As a basis for making an educated analysis of a hurricane's track, the Weather Bureau was working with one arm tied behind their backs.

The Long Island Express developed into a hurricane near the Cape Verde Islands, beginning as a gust of wind off the western coast of Africa. The storm increased in intensity and NOAA forecasters today predict that at one time, the storm was actually a category 5 hurricane while out in the Atlantic. Hindsight is great, but at the time, forecasters expect this storm to form a slow arc near the Bahamas through the Atlantic near, with the storm path staying at sea off the coast of the United States. They were wrong.

At 9 a.m. on September 21, the Express was located off the coast of Cape Hatteras, NC. This Category 3 storm was still expected to veer out to sea. What no one knew, given the lack of weather analysis equipment that we have today, is that a warm and moist low-pressure system on the East Coast had grabbed the hurricane. In addition, a high-pressure system over Canada prevented the storm from turning out to sea as forecasters predicted. With the low pressure system steering the storm, the Long Island Express headed due north, right into Long Island.

When the Long Island Express came ashore, the storm was 500 miles wide with sustained winds of 121 mph. The eye of the storm was 50 miles wide. The storm's surge and violent intensity was actually measured on seismographs in Alaska. The Express destroyed almost all of the 179 homes located on Dune Road in Westhampton, leaving just 26 homes that were barely livable. When the Express hit New England, it drove a ship out of the water into a dockside warehouse, sparking a fire that consumed a quarter mile of dockside businesses. In Rhode Island, the Long Island Express completely swept clean the beach along Fort Road in Watch Hill. Coastal communities didn't stand a chance against a 17-foot storm surge and such high sustained winds.

The hurricane slowed in speed as it moved inland, but not by much. As the storm continued on its path up the Connecticut River Valley, it saturated the ground with up to 2 inches of rain per hour. Destroying forests in New Hampshire and orchards in Vermont, the storm retained a good deal of its power despite the drag of the landmass beneath it. The storm even caused a train derailment in Vermont due to the lack of stability of the heavily saturated ground. Inland damage to New England states was extensive.

Total deaths for this storm reached 690 people, giving the Long Island Express the label as one of the most deadly natural disasters in the United States. Damage estimates were over $400,000,000, with over 57,000 homes either damaged or destroyed. Downed trees and damaged buildings were still visible 13 years later in 1951.

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