1938 Hurricane - September 21, 1938.

WINDS: 120 -mph (moving at 38 - 40 mph).
PRESSURE: 27.94 inches/946 mb.
STORM - SURGE: 12 - 16 feet above Mean Tide ?

LEFT: Wind gusts over 120-mph bring down the steeple of the oldest church in Danielson, Connecticut, during the 1938 Hurricane.

RIGHT: Oceanfront home on Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island before and after the 1938 Hurricane (Photos Courtesy of Providence Journal - 1940).

 

To this day...the 1938 Hurricane remains the third most intense tropical cyclone to ever strike the United States Atlantic coast north of Florida. Only Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954) - were more intense at landfall on the East Coast. Every record for wind speed, tidal surge, and barometric pressure in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Long Island, NY... can be traced to this single event. The 1938 hurricane produced the highest known storm-surge in the written history of Northeast coast...about 16-feet above mean tide (m.s.l). Several newspaper reports from the time of the 1938 hurricane.... report saltwater damage to buildings more than 25-feet above sea level.

In terms of fatalities and property damage - the 1938 hurricane is still one of the worst disasters in North American history. In a matter of hours, 600 people were killed, 4500 were injured, and more than 75,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The states of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, suffered their worst natural disaster in recorded history. The tidal wave like storm-surge that hit Long Island and Rhode Island was so severe - that earthquake instruments 3,000-miles away recorded it on seismographs. As a final cruelty - the residents of the North Atlantic states had little or no warning that this extreme meteorological event was unfolding before them.

The 1938 hurricane was a classic Cape Verde hurricane that originated in the far eastern tropical Atlantic. Reports from mariners place the storm 350-miles northeast of Puerto Rico on September 16th... then heading in the general direction of the southern Bahamas. By September 20th, the U.S. Weather Bureau received ship reports that the severe cyclone had now turned north - traveling roughly parallel to the U.S. coastline.This was a common motion for Atlantic hurricanes.

Thinking the storm would follow the normal northeast path and recurve out to sea east of Cape Hatteras...it appears the Weather Service no longer considered the storm a threat to the US East Coast. Unfortunately, as the hurricane swept up the Atlantic seaboard the storm veered to the northwest...not to the northeast (out to sea). The eye crossed central Long Island, NY, then crossing the Connecticut coast near New Haven at 3:30 PM on Wednesday, September 21, 1938 with full force.

It appears the 38 hurricane may have reached Category 5 strength between the northern Bahamas and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It is estimated that the barometric pressure was as low as 935-mb (27.62 in.) when the storm was about 100-miles east of Delaware Bay. The 38 hurricane continued northward with little change in strength until landfall on Long Island/Connecticut. It is well known that the summer of 1938 was humid and rainy along the East Coast, and the Bermuda High was displaced to the north and east. This unusual position of the subtropical high, allowed Atlantic Ocean temperatures to reach 80 F further north than normal. It is estimated that the Atlantic Ocean was above 80 F from the central New Jersey coast southward in mid September 1938. The weather pattern that summer also featured a frequent weakness along the middle Atlantic coast... with a strong southerly flow.

The track of the 1938 hurricane from the far tropical Atlantic to landfall in the North Atlantic States. (Track chart courtesy of National Hurricane Center - 1970).

METEOROLOGICAL CONDITIONS IN THE UNITED STATES

At the time of landfall on central Long Island, sustained winds in the 1938 hurricane have been estimated at 120-mph. Like most severe northeast hurricanes...the 1938 hurricane picked up speed as it headed toward landfall on Long Island, NY and Connecticut. The 1938 hurricane was moving at 40-mph when it struck Long Island - this increased the winds on the right side of the cyclone to much stronger values. Modern engineering analyses of photographs of structural damage taken after the 1938 hurricane conservatively estimate peak wind gusts of 130-mph in southern Connecticut, and 150-mph across eastern Long Island and coastal Rhode Island during the 1938 hurricane. Due to the lack of weather stations near the area of landfall the winds in the 38 hurricane may never be truly known.

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(Side bar) THE LONG ISLAND EXPRESS - A MYTH?

While there has been considerable hype over the years that the 38 hurricane was moving extremely fast when it struck Long Island and Connecticut...recent scientific evidence (NHC - Jarvinen 2003) shows that the 38 hurricane was only moving at around 38 to 40-mph when it hit Long Island and Connecticut. The 38 hurricane accelerated only between Virginia and Delaware Bay (likely only up to 56-mph)...with the storm actually decelerating to 40-mph by the time the center reached New York and Connecticut. The difference between the 38 hurricane and other northeast hurricanes... was it reached the northeast Atlantic States with a deep barometric pressure and the RMW (radius of maximum winds) was very tight... indicative of a severe tropical cyclone.

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A gust of 120-mph was recorded at the Watch Hill Lighthouse weather station in Rhode Island, before the weather tower collapsed. The Harbormaster's Office in New London, Connecticut, recorded sustained winds of 98-mph... until the roof blew off. At Blue Hills Observatory south of Boston, winds of 121-mph with gusts to 186-mph were recorded. The Blue Hill measurements were taken at an elevation of 700 feet - significantly higher than the standard 33-foot elevation for wind measurements. However, Blue Hill, Massachusetts is more than 100-miles inland from where the 38 Hurricane made landfall.

The lowest barometric pressure recorded on land was 27.94 inches (946-mb) at the Coast Guard Station in Bellport, Long Island. In Connecticut, a low pressure of 27.99 inches (948 mb) was recorded on the Wesleyan campus in Middletown, while the Yale School of Forestry in New Haven, recorded a pressure of 28.05 inches (950 mb) on a barograph (Riehl-1981). Recent analysis by hurricane researchers (Jarvinen-NHC - 2003) have concluded that the 38 hurricane may have had a landfalling pressure as low as 27.79 inches (941 -mb) when it struck Long Island and 27.94 inches (946-mb) when it struck the coast of Connecticut. Based on pressure reports, the eye of the 38 Hurricane was about 30-miles wide. On Long Island the eye passed over the area from Bellport to Southhampton. In Connecticut the eye crossed the coast from New Haven to Saybrook.

The storm -surge of the 1938 hurricane has been estimated at up to 16-feet above mean sea level. The highest factually observed value of 13.9 feet above m.sl. was measured in downtown Providence, RI at the head of Narragansett Bay. On the south shore of Long Island and the Atlantic Coast of Rhode Island...the storm surge has been estimated at 12 to 16 feet above mean sea level...and up to 11-feet above m.s.l. in Connecticut. Like most early hurricane diasters...because of the lack of data, it is difficult to estimate the true height of the storm surge from the 38 hurricane. Several newspaper reports from the time of the 38 hurricane.... report salt-water damage to buildings more than 25-feet above sea level. The only factual statement that seems to be a safe bet... is the 1938 hurricane produced the worst storm surge/ tidal flooding ever known in the Northeast Atlantic States to this day (2009).

The Atlantic Coast of Rhode Island a week after the 1938 hurricane (Rhode Island Historical Society).

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THE IMPACT

The 1938 hurricane produced winds of unimaginable fury across eastern Long Island, eastern Connecticut, and southern Rhode Island. The power of the wind carried away roofs, church steeples, factory buildings, and thousands of smaller structures. On Long Island - several 300-foot steel and concrete-bolted RCA radio towers were twisted into unrecognizable shapes by the wind. In Stonington, Connecticut - the entire top floor of the three-story, 500,000 square-foot brick Schneider factory...just blew away. Many who experienced the 38 storm along the immediate coastline, reported the sound of the wind reached an incredible high pitch and the air became intensely humid. The sight and sounds of the storm even inspired a book - A Wind To Shake The World, by Everett S. Allen.

The extreme storm surge was the most devastating aspect of the 1938 hurricane. The storm-surge was beyond anything coastal residents in New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut had ever experienced...there was no historical comparison. Several survivors along the coast of Rhode Island stated that at the height of the hurricane they saw a 40-foot high fog bank rolling toward the beach...when the fog bank got closer to the coast they realized it wasn't fog - it was water (Whipple - 1940). The combination of a 12 to 16 -foot tidal surge...20-foot waves...and wind gusts that may have reached 150-mph... leveled 1 out of every 5 coastal buildings in eastern Long Island, southeast Connecticut and southern Rhode Island. Along the open-ocean facing coastal roads in Rhode Island and Long Island the damage was horrific. Whole beach communities were swept away... some without a trace.

The eastern end of Fire Island, NY near Moriches Inlet after the 1938 hurricane. The main road through the island is just visible in the center of the lower portion of the photograph. More than 200 homes had been perched on dunes 20-feet high. The horrific storm tide leveled the dunes and swept everything away. (Photo Courtesy Mitchel Field, 2nd Air Base Squadron - U.S. Army, NY 1938).

 

Eastern Long Island, New York was the first location hit by the storm -surge. Although eastern Long Island was mostly rural in 1938 - there were several small barrier island communities spread along the south shore. Days after the hurricane...the area from eastern Fire Island to Southhampton looked as if a 50-foot tidal wave had hit - nothing was left standing. The storm surge swept completely across the narrow island into the Bay, sweeping away all traces of civilization. Most of the buildings on Fire Island and Westhampton Beach washed up on the mainland. The storm surge was of such fury... that it created a new inlet along the coast - Shinnecock Inlet. Around the Westhampton Beach area, Red Cross workers had to use utility grid maps to figure out where roads had been (Whipple 1969). More than 60 people were killed on eastern Long Island. Several of the dead were found wearing only shoes and socks - the wind had stripped all clothing. In the days after the cyclone the scene was grim on eastern Long Island. The number of bodies mounted so fast that the dead were displayed in school buildings in the hope of identification.

TOP RIGHT/LEFT: Napatree Point, Rhode Island - before and after the Hurricane of 38. Two short docks are visible in the center of both photographs. (Photos Lewis R. Greene 1938).

Bottom: Temporary morgue on eastern Long Island following the 38 hurricane.

 

Forty minutes after the storm -surge of the 38 hurricane struck Long Island, NY...a tidal surge of epic proportions was quickly rising through the coastal plain of Rhode Island. At 3:50 pm the storm surge struck the narrow barrier Island of Napatree Point, Rhode Island with full fury: Forty-four summer homes and the yacht club building...along with seventeen people... were swept into the Atlantic and never seen again. In Westerly, the four-mile long Misquamicut Beach was totally wiped clean of buildings - more than 500 beach homes were swept away. At least 100 people were killed in the Westerly area alone. Hundreds of people - including whole families, clung to rooftops and floating debris, as they rode the wreckage across the bay to the mainland. In Charlestown, Green Hill, Matunuck, Jerusalem, Galilee, the story was the same - many were dead or missing...many more made a narrow escape.

The 38 hurricane sent a tidal surge of epic proportions funneling up narrow Narragansett Bay. The bay shore towns of East Greenwich, Barrington, and Warwick suffered catastrophic damage. Whole rows of buildings collapsed into the raging surf. On Conanicut Island in the middle of Narraganset Bay, a school bus full of grade school children was swept off a narrow causeway and into the raging storm surge - killing seven of ten children. Providence, Rhode Island experienced one of the worst urban hurricane storm surges ever known on the US mainland. The storm-surge reached 13.8 feet above m.s.l in downtown Providence...submerging hundreds of cars, trolleys, and the lower floors of buildings. Hundreds of terrified people were marooned on the upper floors of city offices and the US District Court House. The one-hundred seventeen year old, 71-foot steel reinforced lighthouse tower on Whale Rock, could not even stand against the 38 hurricane...it was swept away taking the 74-year old lighthouse keeper to his death.

Chaos at rush-hour... downtown Providence, Rhode Island as the storm surge of the 1938 Hurricane submerges downtown (RI Historical Society).

 

As the 1938 hurricane engulfed Rhode Island all sense of normalcy and order were lost. The best and worst of human nature came out. As writer David Cornel De Jong looked out his third floor office at civilization slowly unraveling in downtown Providence he wrote: "They came, neck deep, or swimming, rising out of the water and disappearing through the demolished store windows. At first there were few, then there were hordes, assisting each other. They seemed organized, almost regimented, as if they'd daily drilled and prepared for this event, the like of which hadn't happened in a hundred and twenty years. They were brazen and insatiable; they swarmed like rats; they took everything. When a few policeman came past in a rowboat, they didn't stop their looting. They knew they outnumbered the police. "

LEFT: At 4:45 p.m. the storm surge of the 1938 hurricane reaches the very heart of Providence, Rhode Island. Waves can be seen in front of the Biltmore Hotel (right building), while marooned pedestrians gather on the steps of Providence City Hall. RIGHT: Looking down Dorrance Street at the height of the hurricane. (Photos Providence Journal 1940).

In the days following the cyclone southern Rhode Islanders were in a state of grief-stricken shock. The first days after the storm were a somber time - the dead and injured were everywhere. As police and fire rescue teams picked their way through the devastated coastal communities, the number of dead mounted quickly. In the first three days after the cyclone -132 bodies were recovered along the Rhode Island coastline. After five days - the number of known dead passed 225. Entire families had perished in the tidal surge. A week after the storm, more than 150 people were still missing across Rhode Island. For days after the hurricane -bodies washing up on the beach would be recovered and brought to staging areas in several towns for Identification and proper burials. The number of dead mounted so fast - that morgues in the small coastal towns of Rhode Island had to have embalming fluid sent from Providence (Allen - 1976).

Desolation and destruction near Misquamicut Beach along the Rhode Island coast a a few days after the 1938 hurricane (Providence Journal 1939).

The wind and storm -surge destruction was equally shocking across central and eastern Connecticut. Much of eastern Connecticut found itself in the dangerous eastern-semicircle of the cyclone; the area from Stonington to New Haven experienced severe wind damage. Although Long Island offered some modest buffer to the huge open-ocean surges...the furious waters of Long Island Sound rose to unimaginable heights. The small shoreline towns to the east of New Haven... with hundreds of ramshackle beach cottages and bath houses (many less than 10-feet above sea level)...suffered nearly complete destruction from the storm-surge and winds. Many people killed along the Connecticut coast - attempted to stay in the flimsy beach cottages during the hurricane, attempting to make quick storm preparations when the storm-surge and maximum winds of the hurricane struck. To this day - the 1938 hurricane stands as the worst natural disaster in Connecticut's 350-year history.

After the hurricane thousands of structures lay in ruin along the Connecticut coast. In the small beach towns of Clinton, Westbrook, and Old Saybrook - buildings were piled in a mass of wreckage across coastal roads. In the Lymes, many beach cottages were flattened or swept away... some without a trace. Along the shorefront in Stonington, buildings that were swept off their foundations floated two-miles inland. Days later, rescuers searching for survivors in the flooded and wrecked homes in Mystic...found live fish and crabs in kitchen draws. Nearly every coastal community from New Haven to the Rhode Island state line suffered heavy damage. The US Postal Service was unable to deliver mail for more than a week anywhere east of New Haven.

The scene in the City of New London was one of shocking devastation. New London was first swept by the 120-mph winds and storm surge...then the waterfront business district caught fire and burned uncontrollably for ten-hours. The day after the storm, the Fort Neck section of town was a wasteland of flooded and twisted smoldering ruins. The stately beach-front homes along Ocean Beach were leveled by the huge storm surge. The permanently anchored 240-ton lightship at the head of New London Harbor ended up on a sand bar two-miles away.

Storm -surge destruction along the eastern Connecticut coast - following the 1938 hurricane. (Photo Courtesy 2nd Air Base Squadron - Mitchel Feild - 1940) .

In another unfortunate turn of events... it had been raining for several weeks before the hurricane hit. The East Coast had been in a humid, rainy pattern all summer. A week before the 38 hurricane...the Northeast had another bout of rainy weather; The ground was saturated and most rivers and streams were nearing bank-full by September 21st. As the 1938 hurricane crossed the Connecticut coast and marched inland it dropped heavy rain over interior Connecticut and Massachusetts. Rainfall of 6 to 8-inches in four hours - sent water cascading down the hilly terrain of northern Connecticut. Several days after the storm hit, the Connecticut River rose to its second highest level ever recorded in Hartford and Middletown. The East Hartford area had water neck-deep in the street more than a mile from the rivers edge. Thousands were left homeless.

A week after the storm, Connecticut reported 97 people killed, over 2,500 injured, and more than 100 people still missing.

Connecticut River at Hartford - 4 times normal width. Arrow at top of photo shows Travelers Insurance Tower. Hundreds of East Hartford homes submerged. Millions in damage. Thousands homeless. (Courtesy of Connecticut National Guard).

Boston and most of northern Massachusetts escaped the wide-spread and catastrophic damage that the 38 hurricane inflected on the states to the south. Nevertheless... the area around New Bedford and Buzzards Bay was heavily damaged. As the storm-surge drove up the narrowing Buzzards Bay... the water flattened entire rows of buildings and overturned automobiles in Wareham and Onset. The area around Westport Beach and Horseneck beach was especially hard hit. The day after the hurricane hit, Horseneck Beach was in ruins; buildings were overturned, the bathhouses and the main road had been swept way, and the coast was littered with debris. The New Bedford Port and docks were in shambles after the storm. In one day - two-thirds of all the boats docked in New Bedford Harbor sunk. Severe inland flooding also occurred in Southbridge and Springfield, with residents stranded for several days after the storm. After causing damage in heavy flooding and wind damage in New England (New Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine), the weakening hurricane died over the cool forests of southern Canada.

The true amount of lives lost and damage from the 1938 hurricane can never be truly known. Several small beach and barrier island communties on eastern Long Island and along the Rhode Island coast never fully recovered from the storm. To this day... several inlets created during the 38 hurricane, along with the slabs and foundations of several buildings, are still visible. As with any widespread disaster, damage totals and fatalities vary from agency to agency. The best Red Cross estimates report 600 to 700 people killed, 3500 - 5000 injured, 75,000 buildings damaged, 20,000 automobiles destroyed, and 3,000 boats sunk. The regional power companies collectively estimated that 10,000-miles of electric and telephone wires came down in the storm (the distance between New York City and Shanghai, China). Two months after the cyclone... families reported people were still missing or unaccounted for.

The day after the 1938 hurricane slammed into the northeastern United States the attention of the world was on major political events unfolding (Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia). It was more than a week before news of the appalling death and destruction along the U.S. Atlantic coast reached the rest of the World. Although the 1938 hurricane was not the strongest hurricane to hit the United States...the combination of a intense hurricane, moving rapidly, and striking a densely populated area... created property damage unequaled up to that time. The 1938 hurricane did more damage than the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. According to several publications... the total property damage was the greatest of any natural disaster ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere up to that time.

According to the National Hurricane Center - when changes for inflation, coastal county population, and wealth are considered...the 1938 hurricane would produce $41.5 billion is losses today.

 

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    © Michael A. Grammatico 07/2008                                                                     

 

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