The deadliest hurricane to hit New England had no name

Boston, MA - 9/21/1938: A car is covered by bricks from a chimney off a house at 77 Main St. in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston on Sept. 21, 1938, after a tropical hurricane that left thousands injured and tens of thousands of dollars in damage.  (Edward Cushing/) --- BGPA Reference: 160523_MJ_001
A car is covered by bricks from a chimney off a house in Charlestown. –Edward Cushing / The Boston Globe

Parts of New England certainly felt the effects of Jose this week, as the hurricane drifted offshore up the East Coast.

But it was nothing compared to the devastation wrought exactly 79 years ago Thursday. On the short list of hurricanes to hit New England, the nameless storm of 1938 stands alone (officials didn’t begin naming hurricanes until 1950).

As opposed to the closely monitored, slow-moving Jose, the Category 3 hurricane swirled up the coast at 50 mph, hitting the region with surprise — and fatal force.

Official death estimates range from 564 to 700 people. Roughly 63,000 were left homeless. The Blue Hill Observatory in Milton recorded sustained winds of 121 mph and a peak gust of 186 mph. A 50-foot wave hit the shores of Gloucester. An estimated 2 billion trees were downed. According to the National Weather Service, the damage to southern New England’s bedrock fishing fleet was “catastrophic.”

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“It appeared nature conspired to make the storm of 1938 a deadly killer,” The Boston Globe later wrote.

Track of the 1938 Hurricane —National Weather Service

According to the Globe, the region had already seen record rainfall that summer, and it had rained for 10 straight days previous to September 21, including four days of particularly heavy rain immediately leading up to the storm. Local rivers were already near flood state and the soaked ground made trees more susceptible to being uprooted.

Additionally, separate high pressure systems over Nova Scotia and the Mid-Atlantic created a virtual slot in the atmosphere channelling the storm quickly up the coast to New England. Furthermore, the storm arrived at the same time as the highest annual astronomical tides.

After the 1938 hurricane, this boat ended up on the New Haven Railroad tracks in New London, Connecticut. —Boston Globe archives

But it wasn’t just natural elements that contributed to the cataclysmic conditions.

As the Washington Post recently wrote upon the storm’s 75th anniversary, forecasters in the Northeast were unconcerned with the storm until it was too late. A New York Times headline that day said the hurricane was “apparently heading out to sea” after brushing the Southeast.

The U.S. Weather Bureau (the predecessor to the National Weather Service) repeatedly issued forecasts stating the hurricane would not make landfall. According to the Post, only a junior forecaster in the Bureau named Charlie Pierce (no, not that Charlie Pierce) foresaw that the storm would deviate back inland due to the aforementioned high pressure systems. Pierce, however, was reportedly overruled by more senior staff. Per the Post:

Afterward, the Weather Bureau defended itself by insisting that a better forecast wouldn’t have mattered anyway because New Englanders “aren’t hurricane-minded”.  In any event, shortly thereafter, chief forecaster Charles Mitchell resigned and Charlie Pierce was promoted.

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And so the storm continued barreling at an already-waterlogged New England with record winds, more than 20 inches of rain, and 20-foot storm surges. And there was relatively little warning.

The storm’s impact was chronicled by a somewhat-sensational and very self-congratulatory video by the federal Work Projects Administration.

According to the National Weather Service, the eye of the hurricane passed over New Haven, Connecticut, around 4 p.m., after ripping through the middle of Long Island. Fires due to downed power lines raged in New London and Mystic, while the Connecticut River rose nearly 20 feet over flood levels in Hartford. Sections of several railways were washed away. “Several hundred” Boston-bound passengers were stranded in Stonington after their train stalled in the midst of the storm.

And yet it was Ocean State that caught the worst of the storm.

According to the Globe, more than 200 were killed in Rhode Island, which — despite receiving less rain than its neighbors — was hit hard by storm surge and floods.. Downtown Providence was “submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet,” according to the National Weather Service. About 10,000 people were reportedly trapped by the waters until late that night, reported the Globe; others drowned in the streets.

Westerly, Rhode Island, reportedly had to remake their old town hall into a morgue for the 74 people killed by the storm. According to the Globe, yachts were blown into the streets of Watch Hill, while 25 cottages in the coastal community were swept into Narragansett Bay. Across Rhode Island, entire beachside villages “were wiped out.”

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The hurricane even created a new island.

One family was unable to evacuate their beachside home in Napatree Point in Westerly. In a documentary decades later, Catherine Moore recalled her father bracing against the door to hold back the storm’s punishing winds and rain, only to realize he was “eventually trying to hold back the ocean.”

“Next thing I knew, we were floating,” Moore said. “We were on the water with the waves crashing over us, and part of the house still attached, one of the walls still attached to this piece of floor, and it almost acted as a sail.”

The family and their housemaids clung to a piece of flooring “which served as a raft,” Moore said. Miraculously, the makeshift float swept them back across the sound to land.

In Boston — where 22 were counted dead, along many more injured, often by falling bricks and debris — trees were downed across the Common, windows blown out all down Boylston Street, and the U.S.S. Constitution was torn from her mooring. According to the Globe, it took two days to retrieve eight loaded freight cars that were blown adrift into Boston Harbor.

Along the Bay State’s coast, all sorts of boats were swept inland, including more than 30 wrecked yachts in Marblehead. According to the state’s office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the storm left 2,605 fishing vessels destroyed and 3,369 damaged.

As the Globe reported the following day, entire communities were cut off from each other, as roads, rail, and wire were washed out. Falmouth and New Bedford were under eight feet of water. And back in Boston, according to the Globe, the National Guard patrolled the streets with “shoot to kill” orders for any looters.

Across the state, 127 people were reported dead. New England has only seen two other Category 3 hurricanes since — both in 1954.

Win Firman, then a student at Amherst College, which was much closer to the hurricane’s track, recalled how the storm took him and others by surprise.

“My brother and I were at football practice, and the wind was blowing harder and harder, and he punted and the ball came back … over his head,” the 94-year-old told the Globe in 2013. “And the coach said, ‘Well, we’d better call it quits.’”

That was probably a better call than any the coach made in any actual game.

Firman said they returned to their dorms as shards of glass began blowing past them and emerged the next morning to find roofs blown off campus buildings.

“The place was a disaster,” Firman said.