New England Hurricane – September 21, 1938

Wrong assumptions about the course this hurricane would take led to inadequate preparations for its arrival in New England. Consequently, there was extensive destruction.

On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 21, 1938, a hurricane slammed into Long Island at 150 mph bringing along in its wake a storm surge of thirty feet or more. On Long Island’s southern beach, as residents tried to cope by putting up shutters and fastening windows, they suddenly found their homes swamped by thirty feet of water. Some homes just exploded. In Rhode Island, the city of Providence, unprotected from the wind because of its location east of Long Island, fared worse than most places. It is located thirty miles from the ocean at the head of a funnel-shaped sea inlet.

The storm surge, trapped by the narrowing passage, rose far beyond the thirty feet that was experienced elsewhere and destroyed everything in it path. About half of the six hundred deaths from the storm happened in Rhode Island. Overall, this hurricane was the deadliest U.S. natural disaster in all of the sixty-seven years prior to the arrival of Katrina.

The hurricane was born in the Caribbean as a tropical storm four days earlier. It traveled westward and forecasters warned Floridians to expect its arrival three days later. On its way through warm waters it gathered strength, arriving off the southeast coast of Florida on the morning of September 20 as a category 5 hurricane, the strongest possible. It stretched across five hundred miles of ocean and its 150 mph winds had already torn up coconut palms on the Bahamas. As it neared the coast of Florida weather forecasters observed the telltale signs of the storm curving north- wards, the path taken by so many storms before, and they gave a sigh of relief.

Predictions now indicated that there would be no landfall either in Florida or anywhere else along the coast before it veered out to sea and faded away in the colder water of the northern Atlantic. In 1938, all weather decisions affecting Florida were made in Jacksonville and, on this occasion, forecasters at the weather bureau there decided that this storm would behave like most of its predecessors that took similar paths. Little attention was paid to weather conditions farther north along the coast, a risky omission since this hurricane was a category 5, the highest and most powerful type.

Weather forecasting skills in the United States were far below those of Europe at this time, particularly those of Norwegians who had developed a system of air mass analysis for predicting weather conditions. In the United States, predictions were based on measurements on the ground at each place, temperature, wind speed, air pressure, and so on. Norwegian scholars had discovered that the atmosphere is not a single undifferentiated mass of air but rather consists of different masses of air each defined by specific humidity and temperature levels, some extending as far as six hundred miles from side to side.

It’s the interactions between these different air masses that create all of our weather patterns. Any hurricane approaching a high-pressure air mass will move away from it because hurricanes are low-pressure zones. Low-pressure air masses will attract hurricanes. Had U.S. weather forecasters taken account of these things, the devastation could have been avoided as can be seen today by examining the environment of September 21, 1938, in and around New York.

There were thunderstorms over New York and muggy conditions over Long Island. Heavy rain had been falling in Connecticut and Massachusetts and there was a risk of flooding there. A low-pressure system covered the area from New England to the Carolinas. A warning had been received from a ship off the coast of Florida that air pressure within the hurricane was lower than had ever previously been known in the Atlantic at that time of year. One additional anomaly was the surprising location of the Bermuda high air mass. It had migrated to a position ten degrees of latitude father north than its usual position.

The combination of the Bermuda high preventing the hurricane from moving out into the Atlantic and the attractiveness of the low that had covered the New England area for days alerted one young forecaster to issue a warning but he was overruled by a senior staff member who insisted that hurricanes rarely reach New England and there was only a chance of 1 percent of one coming at that time. It is true that the last time one hit this area was in 1815 but the United States has sometimes seen hurricanes with a 1 percent chance of hitting a particular place reaching that same spot twice within one month of the same year.

The observations of the young staff member at the Washington, D.C., branch of the Weather Bureau, the agency that took over from the branch at Jacksonville, were the ones that should have been heeded. The general conditions all along the coast were very different from the usual pattern. The low pressure area extended all the way from east of the Great Lakes southward as far as Cape Hatteras and it was stationary in that extended location on September 20 as the hurricane began to move northward from the coast of Florida.

The winds circulating this area of low pressure were strong because of the extent of the low pressure, and they were warm as they swept air along with the hurricane from within the warm Gulf Stream. By midnight on September 20, two developments had occurred, both of which were probably not observed by the Weather Office in Washington, D.C. Had they been aware of them, warnings would have been issued long before the late morning of September 21. The two developments that accelerated the hurricane to a speed of 60 mph and also pulled it toward the northern coast were the attraction of the big low-pressure area and the “extra push” from the warm air that circulated northwards around this low-pressure area.

At 2:30 in the afternoon of September 21 the hurricane made landfall on Long Island. It had traveled from the Carolinas at 60 mph and, though unknown to the forecasters, the positions of the main air masses ensured that it would travel northwards in a straight line and be drawn on to shore by the low pressure air mass that lay over all of New England. Within a short time of its arrival community after community across Long Island, in Connecticut and in Rhode Island were knocked out. All power was lost and there was no way by which any one location could share its experiences with another.

Conditions were made worse by a general indifference to any possibility of a hurricane reaching this part of the country. They had heard of the hurricane throughout the previous day and assumed that what the forecasters had predicted was going to happen. Even when a radio warning of an approaching hurricane suddenly came with the afternoon weather forecast of September 21 people ignored it till tragedy struck. In some places winds reached more than 180 mph and in others more than 230 mph.

The city of Providence was hardest hit because its physical location raised storm water levels very high and also because it was more exposed to open sea. Cape Cod, too, experienced extensive damage and a number of deaths because of its exposure to open sea but other areas of both Massachusetts and Connecticut had some protection from storms because of the shelter provided by Long Island. Nevertheless, a shoreline city like New London was no match for the fury of the hurricane.

Winds and floods combined to leave it in ruins. In and around Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island marinas, beach pavilions and buildings of all kinds were demolished. Farther north in Providence yet another unusual feature of this city was the source of trouble, its arcade, an old indoor shopping mall that became a wind tunnel for the hurricane. People became toys to be tossed around anywhere and everywhere. Many of them were seriously hurt with flying pieces of glass.

In summary, thousands of boats, cars, and buildings were destroyed in the short three-hour rampage of the storm and virtually all telephone lines were knocked out of service. Some creative individuals were able to make use of the cables linking New York and Boston with the cities of Europe so these two U.S. cities were able to send messages to each other. Recovery of something approaching pre-storm conditions was long and difficult. Not only were thousands of homes washed away or damaged beyond repair; in addition, shorelines and other land areas had been washed away, making rebuilding impossible and property titles meaningless.

In one or two locations in Rhode Island there was one redeeming feature: a barrier beach had been opened up in several places, a change that local people had long hoped for because it would ease access for small craft. The final assessment of damage included 680 deaths, about 2,000 injured, another 4,500 homes destroyed, an additional 15,000 damaged, and 60,000 people made homeless. Total value of damage was estimated at $400 million in 1938 currency.

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