Historic Occurrences – 1938 Great New England and Long Island Express Hurricane killed 682+ people
The majority of the storm damage was from storm surge and wind. The winds reached up to 150 mph with waves surging to around 25–35 feet high. Readings from the Blue Hills Observatory showed sustained winds topping 120 miles per hour, with a gust of 186 miles per hour.
The 1938 New England Hurricane (also referred to as the Great New England Hurricane and Long Island Express) was one of the deadliest and most destructive tropical cyclones to strike Long Island, New York and New England. The storm formed near the coast of Africa on September 9, becoming a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale before making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Long Island on September 21. It is estimated that the hurricane killed 682 people, damaged or destroyed more than 57,000 homes, and caused property losses estimated at US$306 million ($4.7 billion in 2017). Damaged trees and buildings were still seen in the affected areas as late as 1951. It remains the most powerful and deadliest hurricane in recorded New England history, eclipsed in landfall intensity perhaps only by the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635.
The storm was centered several hundred miles to the southeast of Cape Hatteras during the early hours of September 21, and it weakened slightly. By 8:30 am EDT, it was centered approximately 100 miles (160 km) due east of Cape Hatteras, and its forward speed had increased to well over 50 mph. This rapid movement did not permit enough time for the storm to weaken over the cooler waters before it reached Long Island. The hurricane sped through the Virginia tidewater during the 9:00 am hour. Between 12:00 pm and 2:00 pm, the New Jersey coastline and New York City caught the western edge. At the same time, weather conditions began to deteriorate rapidly on Long Island and along the southern New England coast.
The hurricane made landfall at Bellport on Long Island’s Suffolk County sometime between 2:10 pm and 2:40 pm as a Category 3 hurricane, with sustained winds of 120 mph. It made a second landfall as a Category 3 hurricane somewhere between Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut at around 4:00 pm, with sustained winds of 115 mph.
The storm’s eye moved into western Massachusetts by 5:00 pm, and it reached Vermont by 6:00 pm. Both Westfield, Massachusetts and Dorset, Vermont reported calm conditions and partial clearing during passage of the eye, which is a rather unusual occurrence for a New England hurricane. The hurricane began to lose tropical characteristics as it continued into northern Vermont, though it was still carrying hurricane-force winds. It crossed into Quebec at approximately 10:00 pm, transitioning into a post-tropical low. The post-tropical remnants dissipated over northern Ontario a few days later.
he majority of the storm damage was from storm surge and wind. Damage was estimated at $308 million, the equivalent of $5.1 billion adjusted for inflation in 2016 dollars, making it among the most costly hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland. It is estimated that, if an identical hurricane had struck in 2005, it would have caused $39.2 billion in damage due to changes in population and infrastructure.
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. An additional 708 people were reported injured.
In total, 4,500 cottages, farms, and other homes were reported destroyed and 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 two billion trees in New York and New England. 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).
Over 35% of New England’s total forest area was affected. In all, over 2.7 billion board feet of trees fell because of the storm, although 1.6 billion board feet of the trees were salvaged. The Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration (NETSA) was established to deal with the extreme fire hazard that the fallen timber had created. In many locations, roads from the fallen tree removal were visible decades later, and some became trails still used today. The New York, New Haven and Hartford 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, Rhode Island.
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 six 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 to produce widespread flooding. Flash flooding on the Chicopee River washed away the Chicopee Falls Bridge, while the Connecticut River flooded most of the Willimansett section. 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 the boats sank in New Bedford harbor. Several homes washed away on Atlantic Boulevard in Fall River, whose foundations can still be found on the beach today. The Blue Hill Observatory registered sustained winds of 121 mph (195 km/h) and a peak gust of 186 mph (299 km/h), which is the strongest hurricane-related surface wind gust ever recorded in the United States. A 50-foot wave, the tallest of the storm, was recorded at Gloucester.