Friday, September 21, 2018

Tracking the 1938 Hurricane

This is the path of the 1938 Hurricane that devastated New England and other areas on the Eastern Seaboard.
Eighty years ago, on Sept. 21, 1938, the devastating Hurricane of 1938 made landfall in New England. RoundtablePictures has compiled reports from various news outlets that tell the story of this event. 


An editorial from The New York Times, published Sept. 21, 1938, the day the hurricane hit New England. praising the forecasting prowess of what was then called the U.S. Weather Bureau:

Every year an average of three such whirlwinds sweep the tropical North Atlantic between June and November. In 1933, there was an all-time record of twenty. If New York and the rest of the world have been so well informed about the cyclone, it is because of an admirable, organized meteorological service.

The storm began on Sept. 9 (a Friday, although some reports say the storm formed as early as Sept. 4) near the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic. About a week later, the captain of a Brazilian freighter sighted the storm near Puerto Rico and radioed a warning to the U.S. Weather Bureau and it was expected that the storm would make landfall in south Florida where preparations frantically began. By Sept. 19, however, the storm suddenly changed direction and began moving north, parallel to the eastern seaboard. It had been many decades since New England had been hit by a substantial hurricane and few believed it could happen again. The storm picked up tremendous speed as it moved to the north following a track over the warm Gulf waters.

From the editors of

Charlie Pierce, a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau, was sure that the hurricane was heading for the northeast, but the chief forecaster overruled him... Hurricanes rarely persist after encountering the cold waters of the North Atlantic. However, this hurricane was moving north at an unusually rapid pace — more than 60 m.p.h. — and was following a track over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

With Europe on the brink of war over the worsening Sudetenland crisis, little media attention was given to the powerful hurricane at sea. There was no advanced meteorological technology, such as radar, radio buoys, or satellite imagery, to warn of the hurricane’s approach. By the time the U.S. Weather Bureau learned that the Category 3 storm was on a collision course with Long Island on the afternoon of Sept. 21, it was too late for a warning.

The storm steadily strengthened as it moved in a general west-northwest direction on the southern side of a strong subtropical ridge of high pressure across the eastern and central Atlantic Ocean. The storm reached maximum intensity just to the northeast of the Bahamas, attaining maximum sustained winds 160 m.p.h. and a minimum central pressure of 940 mb. Although the storm began to recurve out to sea as it moved away from the southeast, U.S. coast, a strong trough of low pressure subsequently moved into the northeast and, in effect, “captured” the storm in a pattern characterized by striking similarities to Hurricane Sandy. The interaction with this mid-level feature caused the storm to abruptly change course, as it began to retrograde, or move back to the north-northwest. As this occurred, the storm also accelerated as it tracked across the Gulf Stream… which allowed the hurricane to maintain much of its strength prior to landfall.

Traveling 600 miles in approximately 12 hours time, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 exhibited the fastest forward speed (upwards of 60 m.p.h.) ever recorded in hurricane history. Since the hurricane moved at a speed similar to that of a train, the hurricane was coined “The Long Island Express.”

From a Yankee Magazine article by James Dodson, published Sept. 21, 2017:

In 1938 the U. S. Weather Service was but a shadow of its future self. For vital information, historian William Manchester has pointed out, “it relied on the 16th-century thermometer, the 17th-century mercurial barometer, and the medieval weather vane.” Meteorologists depended entirely on observations from merchant ships and aircraft to formulate forecasts. It was easier to know where a tropical storm wasn’t, it was often said with amusement, than where a tropical storm was.

From the National Weather Service:

In 1938, the setup of the National Weather Service was very different than it is today. It was called the U.S. Weather Bureau and there were numerous smaller offices across the country that were added to slowly in the future. At this time, the Jacksonville, Florida, Weather Bureau office issued hurricane information and gale warnings north to Cape Hatteras. Thereafter, the Hurricane Center in Washington, D.C. issued the warnings and information through the coast of Maine. The local office in1938 was located in the Whitehall Building in Battery Place in downtown Manhattan.
All times listed are in Eastern Standard Time.

Sunday, Sept. 18
7:30 p.m. - Center of the hurricane was just north of Puerto Rico. At this time, the Jacksonville Weather Bureau office believed the hurricane would hit Florida.

Monday, Sept. 19
The northeast was still more concerned by the heavy rainfall and potential river flooding.
1 p.m. - The hurricane is now showing a slight turn to the northwest. Caution continues to be urged for the Florida coast.

Tuesday, Sept. 20
Rain and fog continue over the northeast with little concern for the hurricane. 
1 p.m. - The hurricane is now located about 350 miles east of Daytona Beach, Florida.

Wednesday, Sept. 21
Because the Jacksonville office had told all mariners to stay off the waters, there were very few reports of the hurricane's exact strength and location.
7:30 a.m. - Center of hurricane now approximately 140 miles ENE of Cape Hatteras. This will be the last advisory from the Jacksonville office.

No alerts or warnings issued north of Atlantic City yet.

9 a.m. - Washington office takes over and issues northeast storm warnings north of Atlantic City and south of Block Island and southeast storm warnings from Block Island to Eastport, Maine. This advisory now called the hurricane a tropical storm and had it centered 75 miles from Cape Hatteras. It was actually further away from Cape Hatteras than written in the advisory. The storm was also much larger and stronger than anticipated.

The New York City office, at this point, has not received a single piece of information about the exact location or strength of the storm.

11 a.m. -  The hurricane is about 200 miles due south of Fire Island.

11:30 a.m. - Washington office issued an advisory with no mention of a hurricane or tropical storm. They mentioned that gale force winds will be likely and diminish overnight.

12 p.m. - The hurricane is located about 100 to 120 miles SE of Atlantic City and about 150 miles south of Fire Island.

2 p.m. - Advisory from the Washington office now mentions that the storm is about 75 miles east-southeast of Atlantic City. It mentions the storm will pass over Long Island and Connecticut this afternoon. Re-analysis shows that the storm may have actually been about 120 miles southeast of the city much stronger and bigger than was mentioned in the advisory. It was now about 50 miles south of Cherry Grove, N.Y., on Fire Island.

Connecticut shore was experiencing gusts near 75 mph as well.

In NYC, children were let out of school early. Heavy rains were occurring, trees were falling and power lines were falling down.

On Fire Island, the boardwalks were being ripped and flipped over. Nobody was evacuated before the storm so many people on Fire Island were rushed into shelter.

On the south shore of Long Island, debris was flying, phone lines were dead and power was out.
In Connecticut, winds were not as strong but pressure was rapidly falling. Flooding was still the main concern.

On the Long Island Sound, a Port Jefferson ferry had left at about 1 pm, heading to Bridgeport, Conn. Conditions deteriorated so rapidly that the ferry could not continue, nor turn back. All 15 passengers on board were safe.

The hurricane made landfall sometime between 2:15 p.m. and 2:45 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1938.

3 p.m. - New Jersey had gale force winds and downed trees, wires, and other scattered debris.
N.Y.C. was experiencing gusts between 80 to 100 mph. Because of the large amount of debris blocking drains, extensive flooding was occurring.

In Saltaire N.Y.: Houses were disintegrating and being washed out to sea. After the eye of the hurricane passed through, the tidal surge began. It was called "the most horrifying aspect of the hurricane." Saltaire was split in half, which created one of the many inlets that formed on this day.

In Westhampton Beach, a huge wave of water swept across the beach and engulfed many of the houses. Roofs were removed, windows broken and parts of houses were ripped apart.

From New Haven on points east,damage was much worse. Wind gusts were near 100 m.p.h. and harbors "quickly disintegrated" and widespread damage was occurring to the coasts.

In Stonington, Connecticut, a train, the Bostonian, was stuck on the tracks due to debris. The 275 people on board sat on the train witnessing hurricane force winds and full houses floating by. Two people, in their attempt to get out, were quickly washed away. Eventually, the crew got the debris cleared and the train moving.

4 p.m. - The center of the hurricane is now somewhere near Meriden, Conn. N.Y.C. was experiencing 60 to 70 mph sustained winds but rain was ending. Long Island was seeing wind gusts subside at this time.

On Saltaire, NY, residents were still huddled in a shelter, cut off from the rest of the town due to an inlet being formed, One inlet, Shinnecock Inlet, formed during the storm and still remains today. Cracks in the Fire Island lighthouse formed and the Coast Guard station was "floating in the inlet.” Over 200 homes were completely destroyed on Fire Island.

In Westhampton Beach, the tide began to recede and 29 people would lose their lives with about 153 out of 179 homes were destroyed.

The Connecticut coast continued to lose boat after boat and experience extreme coastal flooding.
5 p.m. - Conditions were improving everywhere but damage was still being reported. A ferry slammed into a terminal in Staten Island. A second storm tide caused widespread power outages in NYC. Citizens on Fire Island were stranded from the mainland.

6 to 8 p.m. - The storm was well into Vermont by this time and was continuing to transition to an "extratropical storm."

Before the storm, 100 boats fished the waters between Point Judith, R.I., and New London. Afterward, there were only three.

The storm surge hit Westerly, Rhode Island at 3:50 pm, resulting in 100 deaths. The tide was higher than usual because of the autumnal equinox and full moon, and the hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet (5 m) along most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25-foot (8 m) tides from New London east to Cape Cod — including the entire coastline of Rhode Island.
The storm surge was especially violent along the Rhode Island shore, sweeping hundreds of summer cottages out to sea. Low-lying Block Island was almost completely underwater, and many drowned. 

All told, approximately 682 people were killed by the hurricane; 600 of them in Long Island and southern New England; 9,000 homes and buildings were destroyed and 3,000 ships were sunk or wrecked. It remains the most powerful and deadliest hurricane in recent New England history, eclipsed in landfall intensity perhaps only by the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635, the one storm by which all other storms are still measured to this day. 

A letter written by Nicholas Ball of Block Island, Rhode Island, to his daughters dated Sept. 22, 1938:

My dear girls: -
Just a few lines to let you know that we are all okay, but that there is a lot more than I can say about the rest of the Island.
It did me not too much damage but if it had continued much longer and tide had raised a little higher it might have taken the P(ost) O(ffice) as it was the tide came right up to the express office platform.
Am in a hurry so will close for the time and write you more tomorrow.
Love from us all and hope and pray that you are all ok.
You can phone Alice, I’ll write her tomorrow.