Winds slammed New England

Way Back When

Disaster: No one was prepared for the force of the hurricane that hit the Atlantic Coast in 1938.

September 18, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

"Baltimore today should feel the effects of the hurricane which is moving up the Atlantic Coast, the Weather Bureau announced last night," The Sun reported on Sept. 21, 1938.

"There is no indication, however, that the storm will be violent in the local area, as the city is too far inland to get much more than the fringes of the high winds. The strongest winds predicted were for gales -- below hurricane force -- on Cape Hatteras," concluded news reports.

While the storm -- hurricanes did not have names back then -- had seemingly slipped by Maryland with only minor rainfall and gusty winds on the Eastern Shore, it would eventually enter the record books as one of the most deadly and costly ever to hit New England before blowing itself out over Canada.

Since that time, however, it has been remembered as the "Long Island Express" or the "Great Hurricane of 1938," whose sustained winds were clocked at 121 miles per hour, with recorded gusts of 186 mph.

The hurricane, advancing at forward speeds in excess of 60 mph, tracked more than 600 miles -- from Hatteras to New England -- in a mere 12 hours. That was, and is, a record for an Atlantic hurricane; no hurricane since then has ever moved so swiftly in that amount of time.

"The incredible forward speed of the storm caused wind speeds on the eastern side of the hurricane to be extremely fast," said Scott A. Mandias, associate professor of physical sciences at the State University of New York at Suffolk.

"Because hurricane winds rotate counter-clockwise, the winds to the east of the eye are moving from south to north. Because the hurricane was also moving in the same direction, the forward speed added to the already powerful winds. Eastern Long Island and New England would later be hit with wind speeds that exceeded 180 mph," he writes.

If anyone had any doubts as to the hurricane's punch, they were realized when the onrushing juggernaut crashed ashore near Atlantic City.

As the storm raced toward New York and barometers began an alarming slide on the New England seaboard, the Weather Bureau in Boston went on the radio: "The tropical hurricane is now in the vicinity of New York...The storm is attended by winds of whole gale force around its center and by winds of gale force over a wide area. Indications are that it will move inland within the next two hours and will travel up the Hudson Valley or the Connecticut Valley. Precautions against high winds, high tides and heavy rain should be taken throughout the area reached by this broadcast."

The full force of the storm slammed into Long Island at 3: 30 p.m. with devastating consequences just hours before the astronomical high tide. At this point, the storm's eye measured some 50 miles across and the hurricane was 500 miles wide.

The storm surge was so powerful that seismographs as far away as Alaska recorded its arrival.

"Few on the eastern Long Island's South Shore had a chance when the storm surge hit. Waves between 30 and 50 feet pounded the coastline with millions of tons of sea water, sweeping entire homes and families into the sea," writes Mandias.

Storm tides of 14 to 18 feet inundated the Long Island and Connecticut coast while 18 to 25 foot tides flooded downtown New London, Conn., and extended east to Cape Cod. Falmouth and New Bedford, Mass., also found themselves under eight feet of water.

Because the wind had kept the tide at almost high-tide level on Narragansett Bay by the time the next high tide was due late in the afternoon, downtown Providence, R.I., braced itself for a double high tide -- the same phenomenon that caused the Great Flood of 1815.

As flood waters as high as 20 feet swirled into downtown Providence with little warning, pedestrians were swept away while others were pulled to safety by ropes suspended from office building windows.

Automobiles were abandoned while the "din of short-circuited horns in thousands of similarly flooded cars was more clamorous and insistent than any New Year's Eve celebration," according to the Federal Writers' Project book, "New England Hurricane."

After surging up the Connecticut River Valley, the eye of the hurricane passed over Burlington, Vt., by early evening, and moved off to the northwest by 8 p.m. when it crossed Lake Champlain.

Torrential rains of three to six inches, combined with rain from a frontal system that had moved through sections of New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut a few days earlier, produced a combined rainfall of 10 to 17 inches.

Rampaging rivers wiped out houses, businesses, railroad and highways.

Many communities and thousands of people were marooned for several weeks without power or telephone service.

The hurricane left 600 people dead, 1,700 injured and recorded damages of $3.6 billion. A total of 8,900 homes, cottages and buildings were destroyed with 15,000 buildings damaged.

However, the loss of life in the 1938 was only a tenth of the total of the Galveston hurricane of 1900, when 6,000 perished.

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