The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Posted: September 20, 2013, 11:39 am by ntroiano

Today marks the 75-year anniversary of the landfall of one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever impact New England. Back in 1938, what is now known as the “Great New England Hurricane” barreled ashore with an estimated forward speed of 60 mph. The storm first moved over Suffolk County, Long Island before traversing the sound and heading nearly due north making a second landfall near Milford, Connecticut. After that, the storm continued along its path of destruction into interior New England before dissipating across the Canadian Maritimes.

With timing reminiscent to Hurricane Sandy in 2013, this storm made landfall around the time of astronomical high tide and produced a record storm surge of 12 to 15 feet in Rhode Island. Needless to say, most coastal homes were destroyed and several cities were submerged under water for days on end. Sustained hurricane force winds were reported throughout most of Southern New England. In fact, the strongest winds ever recorded in the region were reported at Blue Hill Observatory, MA with sustained winds of 121 mph and peak gusts to 186 mph. Along with extensive damages to homes and professional buildings, widespread power outages were reported due to an extensive amount of downed trees. In Connecticut, downed power lines resulted in catastrophic fires to sections of New London and Mystic.

Aside from the high winds and record storm tides, the rainfall from this hurricane was copious. Severe flooding was reported, especially across interior and mountainous sections of the region. Total rainfall amounts generally ranged between five and ten inches. Making matters worse, a potent frontal system had already produced three to six inches of rain to the same area just one week earlier. Fast-flowing mudslides were commonplace across the region, which resulted in considerable damage and even more destroyed properties in Northern New England…including parts of the Berkshires along with the Green and White Mountains. Taking everything into account, total damages across the area were measured to be $306 million (1938 USD) and would approach $5 billion accounting for inflation during today’s day and age. Additionally, an estimated 800+ fatalities have been attributed to this hurricane, with additional injuries well into the thousands.. Additionally, an estimated 800+ fatalities have been attributed to this hurricane, with additional injuries well into the thousands.

In terms of the meteorological background of this system, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 started out as a Cape Verde Storm, owing its origins to a potent tropical wave which moved off the coast of Africa on September 9th of that year. 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 mph and a minimum central pressure of 940 mb. Although the storm began to recurve out to sea as it moved away from the Southeast, US 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.

What made this hurricane particularly damaging was the fact that it came with little warning. Back in those days it was believed that hurricanes could not make landfall in New England, but instead always moved quickly out to sea. In fact, the forecast from that morning called for partly sunny skies, warm temperatures and light winds across much of the region. As a result, many unsuspecting residents headed off to the beaches or to embark on other outdoor activities. By the time they realized this hurricane would in fact directly strike New England it was far too late for anyone to take the proper precautions. The first warnings alluding to the storm were only issued one to two hours before landfall…when the rain and wind from the outer bands of the cyclone had already begun to impact the region. This set of circumstances goes on to demonstrate that when dealing with factors as unpredictable as the weather almost anything is possible. The fact that the Eastern Seaboard has been affected by two similar tropical systems over the past two years further enhances that point…making it perfectly clear that hurricanes can and do impact the Northeast. It is not a matter of if, but simply a matter of when the next storm will strike.

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