On the morning of September 21st 1938, no New Englander foresaw the utter destruction that lay a few short hours into the future. A massive category 3 hurricane was rapidly churning it’s way northward towards Long Island. By the late that night, the storm would already be passing by southern New England and heading for Vermont and Canada. For thousands their lives would be torn upside down forever and for hundreds their lives would be cut short but a storm famously known in the year it occurred.
While there can still be weather surprises in 2013, it is unlikely we will ever be surprised by a storm the likes of which was seen 75 years ago this week. On the afternoon of September 21st, 1938, a storm as yet surpassed in hurricane lore, hit southern New England. Yes there have been hurricanes since then, but for many, the 1938 storm is the granddaddy of them all.
It’s hard to imagine what society was like back then. There was a war rapidly brewing in Europe, the United States as of then, officially uninvolved. There was no internet, radar, satellites, TV news was decades away and the United States Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the National Weather Service wasn’t very reliable. The issuance of hurricane warnings was in fact just 3 years old.
Forecasters using little more than telegraph information from ships and surface reports from inland areas thought the big storm over the Carolinas would curve eastward away from New England. Imagine being on the beach enjoying a sunny, warm late summer day only to have the worst storm of your lifetime move through several hours later, completely without any warning.
Hurricanes were not given names back then which is why the storm is referred to by the year it struck, rather than by a name. The 1930s was quite an active time for Atlantic hurricanes to impact New England. Storms in 1933, one of the most active years ever on record produced over a foot of rain in parts of southern New England. 77 years ago today the 13th storm of the season was blowing just 40 miles of the coast of Cape Cod. Decades later names like Carol, Edna, Hazel, Dianne an Donna would be associated with massive damage and various number of people killed from those storms. It’s important to remember the historical context of all the storms in the 20th century, when the frenetic media hype goes into overdrive around storms in this century.
On the morning of September 21st it would not have been usual to see people walking on the beach, unaware of the utter destruction that lay just a few hours ahead. By 3pm that day the storm was crossing central Long Island and an hour later had moved north into the Milford area of Connecticut. They eye of the storm would be seen in New Haven, Connecticut and with a forward speed of about 50 miles per hour, the hurricane weakened little on its journey north. The fast movement of the hurricane meant that the most severe weather lasted only about an hour, but that was enough time to do tremendous destruction.
Category 3 strength winds of 120 mph buffeted the shore. The gusts of 186 mph, recorded at Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, MA, would be the strongest hurricane wind ever recorded in the United States. The storm cut a path northward over eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island, central and eastern Massachusetts, across New Hampshire, and Vermont finally into Canada.
Since the storm hit during the time of astronomical high tides the devastation to coastal communities was unprecedented The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. One of the worst hit spots in the area was Narragansett Bay, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Unbelievable as it may seem today, downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet. Sections of Falmouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts were submerged under as much as 8 feet of water. Not only were these storm surges unimaginable, they happened in under 2 hours.
The lowest pressure at the time of landfall occurred on the south side of Long Island, at Bellport, where a reading of 27.94 inches was recorded. Notable low readings included 28.00 inches in Middletown, Connecticut and 28.04 inches in Hartford, Connecticut. Sandy, last fall, brought the pressure to 27.76 inches and the lowest barometric reading ever recorded for an Atlantic storm to make landfall north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in the 1938 hurricane.
Hurricanes have a windy side where the storm surge is often worse and a wet side where rainfall causes massive flooding. The Connecticut river valley saw rainfall rates of inches per hour and when it finally ended 10 to 17 inches of rain was left behind. The ground was already wet from other systems as rivers had been running nearly full before the storm. In Hartford, the Connecticut river reached a level of 35.4 feet, which was 19.4 feet above flood stage. In Massachusetts, the city of Springfield, saw the same river rise 6 to 10 feet above flood stage, causing significant damage.
Damage and death
A total of 8,900 homes, cottages and buildings were destroyed, with an additional 15,000 were damaged by the hurricane. The fishing fleet of New England was decimated as 2,605 vessels were destroyed, with 3,369 damaged. 564 people lost their lives during the storm about 4 times the number that died in 2012 during hurricane Sandy. The 1938 hurricane caused 306 million dollars of damage 75 years ago, but that would translate into nearly 18 billion dollars today and would put that storm in the top 5-7 most costly storms of all time.
The past few years have brought weakening tropical systems to New England. We have lost power for days to nearly a week in some places. The damage has been impressive and places like Vermont were particularly hard hit from Irene back in 2011. However, we have still not witnessed a true hurricane to hit New England since “Bob” back in 1991 and “Gloria six years earlier. Climatologically, another hurricane should have already hit the region. The fact that one hasn’t is only luck, when the next big one does come, we will see damage and destruction that could rival the great storm that changed much of New England 75 years ago.
This is a great time of year to garden. You can plant a lawn, move and divide perennials and plants trees and shrubs will less chance of failure than in the spring. I was recently at a local nursery and saw some great conifers for the garden. Check out the unique plants you can add to your own landscape in this week’s video.
I’ll be updating the details of the forecast on Twitter at @growingwisdom Please follow me there. Feel free to comment or ask questions too.