History In The Headlines

The Killer Hurricane That Surprised the Northeast, 75 Years Ago

By Christopher Klein
Like a sucker punch from the sea, the monstrous Hurricane of 1938 slammed into Long Island and New England with no warning. As the hurricane’s 75th anniversary approaches, take a look back at the deadly cyclone.
September 21, 1938 weather map. (Credit: NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project)

September 21, 1938 weather map. (Credit: NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project)

As dawn broke over the New England coast on September 21, 1938, the rising sun burned away the soft morning fog and left behind wispy clouds and hopes for one final beach day in summer’s fleeting hours. In the morning newspapers, only the most diligent of readers would have discovered, buried deep beneath a blizzard of ink about the rising drums of war in Europe and the continuing struggles of the Great Depression, the good news that the hurricane that had threatened Florida the day before had turned sharply north. A New York Times editorial that morning praised the technological sophistication of the U.S. Weather Bureau, which, decades before satellite imagery and Doppler radar, relied on observations from ships at sea, in tracking the storm. “If New York and the rest of the world have been so well informed about the cyclone, it is because of an admirably organized meteorological service,” reported the Times.

While unsuspecting Northeasterners read their morning newspapers, the unnamed hurricane still lurked 100 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. By 10 a.m., the Weather Bureau’s Washington, D.C. station had downgraded the hurricane to a tropical storm, and nearly all of its forecasters expected the cyclone to follow the well-worn storm track and curve harmlessly away from the densely populated Northeast.

It didn’t.

A ship uprooted from the water lays across railroad tracks in New London, Connecticut. (Credit: Getty Images)

A ship uprooted from the water lays across railroad tracks in New London, Connecticut. (Credit: Getty Images)

Instead, the hurricane roared like an express train paralleling the East Coast. Piggybacking on the jet stream, the hurricane accelerated to nearly 70 miles per hour, twice the normal velocity for a storm of its size, which meant it had little time to weaken over the colder waters of the northern Atlantic. Moving at unprecedented speed, the hurricane raced toward Long Island and New England. By noontime, the skies that held such promise just hours earlier darkened, the winds howled and the sea roiled.

Inside the Weather Bureau in the national capital, junior meteorologist Charlie Pierce continued to calculate data and correctly told his colleagues at a noontime meeting that the hurricane would rip right through New England. The veteran forecasters, who had never seen a major hurricane strike the region, remained skeptical, and the bureau’s 2 p.m. forecast still didn’t mention a hurricane. By the time forecasters realized the true path of the freak storm, the eye of the Category 3 hurricane was already glancing down at land for the first time, crossing at Bayport, New York.

With no time to prepare or evacuate, the millions in the hurricane’s path had no option but to ride out the storm. Winds quickly felled phone and electricity lines, which cut off communication to the impacted region. The storm sliced through the center of Long Island before slamming into the Connecticut shoreline just east of New Haven around 3:30 p.m.

The incredible speed of the cyclone itself magnified the intensity of the storm’s wind east of the eye. Atop the Blue Hill Observatory outside of Boston, sustained winds were clocked at 121 miles per hour with one gust at 183 miles per hour. Roaring winds snapped the stately white steeples of New England’s churches like matchsticks and picked orchards clean of ripened apples before finally plucking the trees themselves out of the ground.

With tides already higher than normal due to a full moon and the impending autumnal equinox, the fast-moving hurricane bulldozed a wall of water between 20 and 30 feet high into the coastlines of Long Island and southeastern New England. Waves smacked against seawalls and sent jets of ocean spray airborne like erupting geysers. The storm surge smashed houses to piles of kindling. It killed dozens in Westerly, Rhode Island, and drove Narragansett Bay straight into the streets of downtown Providence. Floodwaters in New London, Connecticut, sparked a short circuit that was quickly whipped into a 10-hour inferno that incinerated the waterfront.

A couple sitting amongst the remains of their home at Highland Park, Rhode Island. (Credit: Getty Images)

A couple sitting amongst the remains of their home at Highland Park, Rhode Island. (Credit: Getty Images)

The hurricane left behind a swath of destruction hundreds of miles inland as its eye traveled up the Connecticut River valley into Massachusetts and Vermont. The storm dumped more than a foot of rain in some towns, and already swollen rivers transformed into raging rapids that drowned inland cities, such as Hartford. By 11 p.m., barely 12 hours after it had brushed North Carolina, the speeding storm crossed into Canada.

When daylight broke the next morning, the extent of the damage was realized. The hurricane had buckled boardwalks and knotted railroad tracks. Steamships and bathing pavilions were stranded in the middle of roads. Like an incoming tide obliterating children’s sand castles, the sea had swallowed beachfront houses whole and left no remnants. Only 26 of the 179 houses on the dunes of Long Island’s Westhampton Beach remained, and authorities stacked the bodies of victims on the ballroom floor of the Westhampton Country Club. The “Long Island Express” even reshaped the map of the coastline by carving new inlets through barrier islands. The Hurricane of 1938 killed upwards of 700 people, left thousands homeless and ranked at the time as the costliest disaster in American history.

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Categories: Disasters, Hurricanes