Those who know no better might reasonably assume the Long Island Express speeds commuters into Manhattan from fashionable Nassau and Suffolk counties on the continental USA’s longest island, which extends for 190 km (118 mi) up the Atlantic coast from New York City. But the phrase ‘Long Island Express’ has a darker meaning for Long Islanders – for that was the popular name given to the great New England hurricane that brought massive destruction in September 1938.
The Long Island Express began life off Africa, winding up to the maximum Category Five on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale before earning its nickname by making landfall on Long Island as a Category Three. With winds reaching 260 kph (160 mph), it was still powerful enough to become the deadliest hurricane in New England history – killing over 650 people, damaging or destroying nearly 60,000 buildings, felling forests and devastating infrastructure including railroads and the electricity grid.
The hurricane didn’t touch New York City, but came close enough to cut the city’s power supply and cause the East River to flood parts of Manhattan. High winds, combined with a violent storm surge, assaulted eastern Long Island, claiming around 70 lives – including the bizarre deaths of 20 cinema goers and the projectionist after a cinema in Westhampton was plucked into the stormy sky and deposited 3 km (2 mi) out to sea.
Rhode Island was hardest hit, with the storm surge engulfing Westerly and drowning 100 people. The state’s entire coastline was seriously battered and several beach communities were obliterated. Eastern Connecticut, despite being sheltered by Long Island, saw extensive destruction. The hurricane then tracked up the Connecticut River and reached Massachusetts, where another 100 victims were claimed by floods, before weakening over New Hampshire and tracking into southern Ontario and petering out.
When was the Great New England Hurricane: September 21 1938
Where was the Great New England Hurricane: New England, USA
What was the Great New England Hurricane death toll: There was no official casualty figure, but the number of fatalities was between 680 and 800.
You should know: The unfortunate victims of the great New England hurricane were entitled to feel both surprised and hard done by. No major Atlantic storm had struck the area since 1869, when the Saxby gale ravaged Maine before moving into Canada. The last ‘biggie’ to batter Long island itself occurred over a century before, in 1821.