Northeast United States Hurricane – September 15, 1944

This Northeast hurricane received the name the Great Atlantic because of its devastating work on coast and sea all the way northward from Cape Hatteras, leading to the deaths of 390 and causing more than $100 million in damages.

The outstanding U.S. hurricane of 1944 was the Great Atlantic hurricane, sometimes referred to as the Great American hurricane, an intense storm that traveled up the east coast, sweeping the beaches, sinking ships, and throwing wave watchers into the sea. The entire coastline, from North Carolina to Cape Cod was raked with hurricane- force winds. Damages from the storm amounted to $100 million plus the losses of ships. The death toll was 390, of which 350 represented those lost on ships at sea. This was wartime and many navy vessels plied the coastal waters.

On September 14, this hurricane reached Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, as a category 3 storm that extended over an area of six hundred miles. It made an initial landfall at Cape Hatteras but quickly moved offshore toward the northeast. At that stage it was moving at 16 mph but as it moved northwards it accelerated to 40 mph. This is not a common pattern. Storms that move into higher latitudes and, therefore, colder waters, tend to slow down both in internal wind speed and in rate of movement.

However, this storm had many of the features of the very destructive 1938 storm that caused so much damage in the New England area. Two warm air masses, one from the Gulf and one from the Bahamas were moving north as the Great Atlantic hurricane left Cape Hatteras. At the same time, the Bermuda High had greatly strengthened and another high over the Appalachians began to weaken. The warm waters raised the intensity and forward speed of the hurricane and the Bermuda High made sure that it stayed close to the coastal areas.

This storm was different from the hurricane of 1938 in that there was plenty of advance warning. This was due to the better understanding in 1944 compared with 1938 of air masses and their role in transforming and guiding hurricanes. Thus, weather stations were able to predict their paths once they knew the conditions in the prevailing lows and highs. Hurricanes, because they are centers of low pressure, are attracted to lows and they move away from highs.

The media were kept informed and the civil defense officials always knew of the storm’s current position. As the hurricane moved northwards, its intensity and destructive power were reported along the way. Cape Henry, Virginia, noted sustained winds of 134 mph with frequent gusts of 154 mph. Hartford, Connecticut, reported gusts of 109 mph. In numerous locations rainfall of 6–11 inches occurred within two-hour time periods.

Tremendous damage occurred all along the coast from North Carolina to New England, including major damage to 41,000 buildings. In Maine, 40 percent of the total apple crop on one county was destroyed. Elsewhere in the same state trees were uprooted, limbs torn down, and electric and telephone service cut off. The hurricane went across eastern New England and into Canada by September 15 and, from there, it finally merged with a larger low near Greenland on December 16.

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