Weather service warns that 1938-type hurricane could someday devastate Mass.

Could this happen again someday? The 1938 hurricane left the heart of Providence under 6 feet of water.
Could this happen again someday? The 1938 hurricane left the heart of Providence under 6 feet of water. Credit: Associated Press

If a storm similar to the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 were to strike again, communities in Buzzards Bay could be devastated, according to a computerized model developed by the National Weather Service.

“It’s beautiful to live at the coast, that’s for sure, but one of these days it’s going to get us,” said Glenn Field, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service in Taunton.

The SLOSH, or Sea, Lake, and Overland Surges from Hurricanes, model was used to simulate a Category 3 hurricane traveling at 60 miles per hour, similar to the 1938 storm, moving through Narragansett Bay, just west of Buzzards Bay, Field said.

Advertisement—Continue Reading Below

Weather service meteorologists estimated that “ground zero” for the hurricane would be the Gray Gables section of Bourne, along with Parkwood and Swifts beaches in Wareham, Field said.

“Those places could experience 25- to 30-foot storm surges someday,” he said. A storm surge is the rise above normal high tide. Buzzards Bay has never seen a surge greater than 16 feet, Field said.

The 1938 storm, which came ashore in Long Island, N.Y., then Milford, Conn., 74 years ago today, killed 564 people and injured 1,700 more, according to the weather service. With wind gusts up to 186 miles per hour and tides as high as 25 feet, it was one of the most destructive storms ever to hit Southern New England.

Nearly 238 million trees were downed in Connecticut alone after the 1938 storm. Nearly 9,000 homes were destroyed, and about 15,000 were damaged in 1938. About 2,600 boats were also destroyed, according to the weather service.

Field said a similar storm today would cause “an unbelievable amount of damage,” since homes and buildings now stand where some of those trees once did.

“While we’ve had a couple of hurricanes since then, we like to say that people have a warped sense of reality” because they haven’t seen the damage that could be wreaked by a major hurricane, Field said. “Not through any fault of their own, but because it hasn’t happened in a while.”

The 1938 hurricane brought the strongest winds ever recorded in the region, according to the weather service. The Blue Hills Observatory reported sustained winds of 121 miles per hour and a peak wind gust of 186 miles per hour.

Some families were without power for weeks, according to the weather service.

Homes and marinas near Narragansett Bay were completely devastated, and downtown Providence was submerged under a 20-foot storm tide, according to the weather service, which used information from a research paper by David R. Vallee and Michael R. Dion entitled “Southern New England Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, A Ninety-eight Year Summary 1909-1997.”

Field said weather service officials are already gearing up for the 75th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938 and plan to contact local libraries for photos of the catastrophic event to use in their commemoration.

“We’re just talking about it,” he said. “We’d really like to have a big outreach campaign.”

While the region has seen lots of tropical storms, New England has only taken a hit from four major hurricanes, Field said, listing the storms of 1938, 1944, and hurricanes Carol and Edna in 1954.

“We’ve only had four major hurricanes impact New England in the last century,” Field said. “We haven’t had any since then, in 58 years. So, we’re due.”

The most recent official hurricane to hit New England directly was Hurricane Bob, a Category 2 storm that hit Newport, R.I., on Aug. 19, 1991.

“It was big, but it was not huge,” Field said. “Basically, a major hurricane is considered a Category 3 or higher.”

While Florida hurricanes typically travel at 5 to 10 miles per hour, New England hurricanes accelerate up the coast and pass the region at an average speed of 33 miles per hour, he said.

Areas east of the track of the counterclockwise-rotating storm will see maximum wind strength, while areas north and west of the track will see flooding rains.

“You do have to know where you are with respect to the track of the eye,” Field said.

Field said the most severe effects of a hurricane will arrive way ahead of the storm.

“Forget about when they say the eye is going to make landfall,” he said. “If you wait for the eye of the storm, you’re going to be 14 hours late.”

Share