For anybody who lives on Long Island or in New England, the Great Hurricane of 1938 will forever be remembered as the “worst of the worst”. Killing hundreds of people, destroying 57,000 homes and totaling $306 million in damages (~40B in 2014), the storm was the strongest and costliest storm to ever strike Long Island and New England. Damage from the storm, on trees and buildings, was still visible in the early to mid 1950’s, almost 20 years after the storm made landfall.
The storm’s origins can be tracked back to ship data from the Eastern Atlantic ocean, where the storm was first observed near the Cape Verde Islands on September 9th, 1938. The storm then, presumably, tracked west-northwestward while organizing. Data is sparse, but not incomplete — the storm reemerges in more dense data near the Bahamas on September 20th, 1938. At this point, the storm is estimated to have attained Category 5 status — with maximum sustained winds over 140 miles per hour. But it was here that the trouble began, for those in the Northeastern United States. The storm would never actually strike the Bahamas. Instead, it would begin veering to the north, on the periphery of a trough to its east.
A squeeze-play then developed between a trough over the Central and Eastern United States, and a large ridge centered near Bermuda (a classic late-summer Bermuda High). This forced the storm to turn northward, and squeeze in between the two weather systems on either side of it. The storm tracked northward from the Bahamas, parallel to the Southeast Coast of the United States, while weakening from its Category 5 status — but remaining a major, Category 3-4 hurricane.
Possibly the most stunning aspect of all is the storms observed forward speed. While being squeezed between the trough to its west and ridge to its east, the major hurricane sped up incredibly — to an observed forward speed of 70 miles per hour. This is still, to this day, an unprecedented forward speed for a tropical cyclone. This did not give the hurricane ample time to weaken or dismantle its structure as a result of cooler ocean waters. Instead, it roared northward while maintaining Category 3 status.
Meteorologists at the time, and compiled data since the storm, developed a timeline of the storm systems progression, which details exactly how impressive the forward speed of the system was:
8:30am September 21st, 1938: The hurricane is centered a hundred miles or so east of Cape Hatteras, with winds of approximately Category 3-4 strength.
9:00-10:00am September 21st, 1938: The hurricane speeds through the Virginia tidewater at Category 3 strength.
12:00-2:00pm September 21st, 1938: The hurricane moves east of the New Jersey Shore, scraping the coast with dangerous weather conditions. New York City also begins to feel effects of the storm.
2:40pm September 21st, 1938: The hurricane makes landfall in Bellport (Suffolk County) Long Island as a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour observed.
4:00pm September 21st, 1938: The hurricane makes a second landfall in Bridgeport and New Haven, Connecticut as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 115 miles per hour.
5:00pm September 21st, 1938: The hurricane’s eye and center are in Western Massachusetts and all of Southern and Eastern New England is experiencing incredibly dangerous weather conditions.
Eastern Long Island received the worst impact, in our local area, from the storm system. The unprecedented forward motion of the storm led to much higher winds on the eastern side of the eyewall than expected, and the trough over the Great Lakes left the western side of the system somewhat tame, comparitvely. Winds of 60-70mph were observed in New York City and the storm surge flooded many streets. But on Eastern Long Island, the damage was unheard of.
Over 100 deaths are estimated to have occurred on Long Island as a result of storm surge and wind. Ten (yes, ten) new inlets were created as a result of the storm — the most notable being Shinecock Inlet. The estimated storm-related tide was 15 feet high, and the storm surge in parts of Long Island occurred 5 1/2 hours after the storms landfall — a product of the storms incredible forward speed.
In New England, the damage was crippling. Many coastal areas were completely destroyed. The combination of wind, rain and storm surge inundated coastal areas. Even inland, high winds and incredible rain caused widespread damage. Mount Washington gusted over 135 miles per hour — and the damage from the hurricane extended all the way into Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The storms eye was observed passing through Vermont, with a period of clearing and calm weather — an almost unprecedented occurrence. Sea salt spray was observed on the windows of buildings and cars in Montpelier, VT — nearly 120 miles away from the ocean.
The forecasting of the storm becomes an entirely different debate. US forecasting capabilities lagged greatly behind Europe’s (not much has changed, ba-dum-ching) — and the United States Weather Bureau was under the assumption that the system would pass seaward, to the south of New England. A decision was made to stick with that forecast, even given storm observations as the hurricane passed east of the Carolinas, resulting in late warnings and a lack of preparedness in New England and on Long Island.
In the end, this storm still remains the costliest to ever strike New England. Damage estimates in 2014 would reach over 40 billion using current inflation and population development. But the track, forward speed and intensity of the system make it an unprecedented event — and one that will forever be remembered in the annals of east-coast hurricanes.