On This Day

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Post-hurricane flooding at the Music Shell in Bushnell Park, Hartford, Conn..

On This Day: The Great Hurricane of 1938 Devastates Long Island and New England

September 21, 2011 06:00 AM
by Mark E. Moran
On Sept. 21, 1938, a giant hurricane steamed up the eastern seaboard and caused extensive casualties and damage on New York’s Long Island and much of New England, finally weakening a bit as it crossed into Canada.

The Great Hurricane of 1938

The Hurricane of 1938 first formed off the west coast of Africa and became a Category 5 hurricane over the Atlantic. According to a PBS documentary on the storm, the National Weather Bureau learned of the storm from merchant ships at sea, and presumed that it would, like most hurricanes, strike near Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and then dissipate.

However, the storm skirted the North Carolina coast and, as had hurricanes in 1635 and 1815, veered straight north. It hit speeds up to 60 mph, one of the fastest-moving hurricanes ever recorded. While it weakened to a Category 3 hurricane before it made landfall, it struck with devastating effects on utterly unprepared populations on Long Island and all the way up through New England.

After the storm departed Long Island, “The storm surge brought 17 feet of water from Narragansett Bay into downtown Providence,,” writes Stephen Long, editor of Northern Woodlands magazine. “Hundreds of people drowned. Boats were deposited inland; houses were sucked out to sea.”
When the storm moved on to Vermont and New Hampshire, trees became the primary victims, says Long: “Fifteen million acres of trees—approximately one third of the forest cover of the time—were uprooted, snapped off, and shattered. Nearly three billion board feet of lumber were salvaged using the tools of the time: crosscut saws and axes, horses and tractors.”

The hurricane killed approximately 700 people and caused damages of more than $400 million, the equivalent of $40 billion in 2011 dollars.

The New York Times reported that in New York City, the transit system actually tried to continue operating, even at the height of the storm, and several subway lines were disrupted for less than two hours. However, a Staten Island Ferry boat, still in its slip, tipped to, and remained stuck for 20 minutes, at a 45-degree angle with 200 terrified passengers aboard.

Background: Hurricanes

Popular Mechanics describes the effects of the Great Hurricane of 1938 and how it led to the development of primitive radar in the 1950s, the presently used Doppler radar in the 1990s, and sophisticated computer modeling and storm-tracker planes of today.

A findingDulcinea feature looks at the causes and devastating effects of hurricanes, tsunamis and tornadoes. Get inside the eye of the hurricane, take a tornado tour and learn about the chain of events that led to the Indian Ocean tsunami, with help from the links provided.

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