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Friday, August 26, 2011

Lest we begin thinking that we've never seen anything like Hurricane Irene before....... one is better at knowing nothing of our own history quite like us.....*sigh*. That, of course, is another novel for another time...........hence, a post on the Category 5 New England hurricane of 1938.

A bit of history, courtesy of Wikipedia:

The New England Hurricane of 1938 (or Great New England Hurricane or Yankee Clipper or Long Island Express or simply The Great Hurricane of 1938) was the first major hurricane to strike New England since 1869. The storm formed near the coast of Africa in September of the 1938 Atlantic hurricane season, becoming a Category 5 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale before making landfall as a Category 3 hurricane on Long Island on September 21. The hurricane was estimated to have killed between 682 and 800 people, damaged or destroyed over 57,000 homes, and caused property losses estimated at US$306 million ($ 4.77 billion in 2011). Even as late as 1951, damaged trees and buildings were still seen in the affected areas.To date it remains the most powerful, costliest and deadliest hurricane in New England history.

Before the 1938 hurricane it had been several decades since a hurricane of any significance adversely affected the northeastern Atlantic coastline. Nevertheless, history has shown that several severe hurricanes have affected the Northeast, although with much less frequency in comparison to areas of the Gulf, Florida, and southeastern Atlantic coastlines.
  • The Great September Gale of 1815 (the term hurricane was not yet common in the American vernacular), which hit New York City directly as a Category 3 hurricane, caused extensive damage and created an inlet that separated the Long Island resort towns of the Rockaways and Long Beach into two separate barrier islands.
  • The 1821 Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane, a Category 4 storm which made four separate landfalls in Virginia, New Jersey, New York and southern New England. The storm created the highest recorded storm surge in Manhattan of nearly 13 feet and severely impacted the farming regions of Long Island and southern New England.
  • The 1869 Saxby Gale affected areas in Northern New England, decimating the Maine coastline and the Canadian Outer Banks. It was the last major hurricane to affect New England until the 1938 storm.
  • The 1893 New York hurricane, a Category 2 storm, directly hit the city itself, causing a great storm surge that pummeled the coastline, completely removing the Long Island resort town of Hog Island.
The years spanning 1893 to 1938 saw much demographic change in the Northeast as large influxes of European immigrants settled in cities and towns throughout New York and New England, many of whom knew little, if anything, about hurricanes. Most people at the time associated hurricanes with the warmer tropical regions off the Gulf Coast and southern North Atlantic waters off the Florida coastline, and not the colder Atlantic waters off New York and New England. The only tropical storms to affect the area in recent years had been weak remnant storms. A more common weather phenomenon was a noreaster, which is a powerful low-pressure storm common in the Northeast during fall and winter. Although Noreasters can produce winds that are similar to those in hurricanes, they do not produce the storm surge that proved to be the 1938 storm's greatest killer. By 1938, most of the earlier storms were hardly remembered.

The storm was first spotted south of the Cape Verde Islands on September 10. Over the next ten days, it steadily gathered strength and slowly tracked to the west-northwest. By September 20, while centered east of the Bahamas, the hurricane is estimated to have reached Category 5 intensity. In response to a deep trough over Appalachia, the hurricane veered northward, sparing the Bahamas, Florida, the Carolinas, and the Mid-Atlantic. At the same time, a high pressure system was centered north of Bermuda, preventing the hurricane from making an eastward turn out to sea.

The hurricane was effectively squeezed to the north between the two weather systems, and late on September 20, this set-up caused the storm's forward speed to increase substantially. During the early hours of September 21, the storm, centered several hundred miles to the southeast of Cape Hatteras, weakened slightly. By 8:30 A.M. EST, the hurricane was centered approximately 100 miles (160 km) due east of Cape Hatteras, and its forward speed had increased to well over 50 m.p.h. This rapid movement did not give the hurricane a sufficient amount of time to weaken over the cooler waters before it reached Long Island. During the 9:00 A.M. EST hour, the hurricane sped through the Virginia tidewater. Between 12:00 P.M. and 2:00 P.M. EST, the New Jersey coastline and New York City caught the western edge of the hurricane. At the same time, weather conditions suddenly began to deteriorate along the southern New England coast as well as on Long Island. The full force of the hurricane started to reach Long Island after 2:30 P.M. EST, and the eye made landfall at Bayport in Suffolk County shortly after 3:00 P.M. EST. By 4:00 P.M. EST, the eye had crossed Long Island Sound and was making a second landfall just east of New Haven, Connecticut.

Modern analyses reveal that the hurricane was at Category 3 intensity at both landfalls and place the maximum sustained winds in the 120–125 m.p.h. range. After crossing Long Island Sound, the hurricane sped inland. By 5:00 P.M. EST, the eye moved into western Massachusetts, and by 6:00 P.M. EST, the hurricane reached Vermont. Both Westfield, Massachusetts and Dorset, Vermont reported calm conditions and partial clearing during passage of the eye, which is a rather unusual occurrence for a New England hurricane. As the hurricane continued into northern Vermont, it began to lose tropical characteristics. Still carrying hurricane-force winds, the storm crossed into Quebec at approximately 10:00 P.M. EST while transitioning into a post-tropical low. The post-tropical remnants dissipated over northern Ontario a few days later.

The majority of the storm damage was from storm surge and wind. Damage is estimated at $6 billion (2004 USD), making it among the most costly hurricanes to strike the U.S. mainland. It is estimated that if an identical hurricane struck today it would cause $39.2 billion (2005 USD) in damage.

Approximately 600 people died in the storm in New England, most in Rhode Island, and up to 100 people elsewhere in the path of the storm. An additional 708 people were reported injured.
In total, 4,500 cottages, farms, and other homes were reported destroyed. An additional 25,000 homes were damaged. Other damages included 26,000 automobiles destroyed, and 20,000 electrical poles toppled. The hurricane also devastated the forests of the Northeast, knocking down an estimated 2 billion trees in New York and New England. Freshwater flooding was minimal, however, as the quick passage of the storm decreased local rainfall totals, with only a few small areas receiving over 10 inches (250 mm) of rain.

Maryland and Delaware 

The western periphery of the hurricane brought heavy rain and gusty winds to Delaware and southeastern Maryland. Damage, if any, is believed to have been minimal.

New Jersey

The western side of the hurricane caused sustained tropical storm-force winds, high waves, and storm surge along much of the New Jersey coast. In Atlantic City, the surge destroyed much of the boardwalk. Additionally, the surge inundated several coastal communities; Wildwood was under 3 feet (0.91 m) of water at the height of the storm. The maximum recorded wind gust was 70 m.p.h. at Sandy Hook.

New York

New York City received a glancing blow from the hurricane. Wind gusts up to 75 m.p.h. blew throughout Manhattan causing the East River to flow three blocks inland. The winds reportedly caused the Empire State Building to sway. Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau Counties, located on the western end of Long Island, were hammered with wind gusts in excess of 100 m.p.h. but escaped the worst of the wind and storm surge due to being on the storm's weaker west side. Power was lost throughout the city.

Eastern Long Island experienced the worst of the storm. The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; about 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road. As a result of the hurricane the Westhampton Beach School District changed its school's nickname from the Green Wave to the Hurricanes.

The surge rearranged the sand at the Cedar Point Lighthouse so that the island became connected to what is now Cedar Point County Park. The surging water created the present-day Shinnecock Inlet by carving out a large section of barrier island separating Shinnecock Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. The storm toppled the landmark steeple of the tallest building in Sag Harbor, the Old Whaler's Church.  The steeple has not been rebuilt. Wading River suffered substantial damage.

In Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island, the storm blew down the movie theatre located on Front Street.

Rhode Island

The storm surge hit Westerly, Rhode Island at 3:50 p.m. EDT, resulting in 100 deaths there alone.
The tide was even higher than usual because of the Autumnal Equinox and full moon. The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet (5 m) across most of the Long Island and Connecticut coast, with 18- to 25-foot (8 m) tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The storm surge was especially violent along the Rhode Island shore, sweeping hundreds of summer cottages out to sea. As the surge drove northward through Narragansett Bay, it was restricted by the Bay's funnel shape and rose to nearly 16 feet (15.8) feet above normal spring tides, resulting in more than 13 feet (4.0 m) of water in some areas of downtown Providence. Several motorists were drowned in their autos. Due in part to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression many of the stores of downtown Providence were looted by mobs, often before the flood waters had fully subsided.

The impact of the storm was strong enough to be recorded on seismographs in California and Alaska.

Many homes and structures along the coast were destroyed as well as many structures inland along the hurricane's path. Entire beach communities on the coast of Rhode Island were obliterated. Napatree Point, a small cape that housed nearly 40 families between the Atlantic Ocean and Little Narragansett Bay just off of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, was completely swept away. Today, Napatree is a wildlife refuge with no human inhabitants. One house in Charlestown was lifted and deposited across the street, where it stood, inhabited, until it was demolished in August of 2011. The only structures lying directly on the coast that survived the storm were the immense stone mansions in Newport, mostly because the largest mansions were along the Cliff Walk, high above the waves, though several, including The Breakers and Carey Mansion (known at that time as Seaview Terrace) still bear scars from the high winds of the storm.

A few miles from Conanicut Island, keeper Walter Eberle lost his life when Whale Rock lighthouse was swept off its base and into the raging waves. His body was never found.


Eastern Connecticut was in the eastern side of the hurricane. Long Island acted as a buffer against large ocean surges, but the waters of Long Island Sound rose to unimaginable heights. Small shoreline towns to the east of New Haven had nearly complete destruction from the water and winds. To this day, the 1938 hurricane holds the record for the worst natural disaster in Connecticut's 350-year history.

In the beach towns of Clinton, Westbrook, and Old Saybrook, buildings were found as wreckage across coastal roads. Actress Katharine Hepburn waded to safety from her Old Saybrook beach home, narrowly escaping death. She stated in her 1991 book that 95% of her personal belongings were either lost or destroyed, including her 1932 Oscar which was later found intact. In Old Lyme, beach cottages were flattened or swept away. Along the Stonington shorefront, buildings were swept off their foundations and found two miles (3 km) inland. Rescuers later searching for survivors in the homes in Mystic found live fish and crabs in kitchen drawers and cabinets.

New London was first swept by the winds and storm surge; then the waterfront business district caught fire and burned out of control for 10 hours. Stately homes along Ocean Beach were leveled by the storm surge. The permanently anchored 240-ton lightship at the head of New London Harbor was found on a sand bar two miles (3 km) away.

Interior sections of the state experienced widespread flooding as the hurricane's torrential rains fell on soil already saturated from previous storms. The Connecticut River was forced out of its banks, inundating cities and towns from Hartford, to Middletown.

African American novelist Ann Petry drew on her personal experiences of the hurricane in Old Saybrook in her 1947 novel, Country Place. Although the novel is set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Petry identified the 1938 storm as the source for the storm that is at the center of her narrative.


The eye of the storm followed the Connecticut River north into Massachusetts, where the winds and flooding killed 99 people. In Springfield, the river rose 6 to 10 feet (3 m) above flood stage, causing significant damage. Up to six inches (152 mm) of rain fell across western Massachusetts, which, combined with over four inches (102 mm) that had fallen a few days earlier, produced widespread flooding. In Chicopee, flash flooding on the Chicopee River washed away the Chicopee Falls Bridge, while the Connecticut River flooded most of the Willimansett section. Residents of Ware were stranded for days and relied on air-dropped food and medicine. After the flood receded, the town's Main Street was a chasm in which sewer pipes could be seen.

To the east, the surge left Falmouth and New Bedford under eight feet of water. Two-thirds of all the boats in New Bedford harbor sank. The Blue Hills Observatory registered sustained winds of 121 mph (195 km/h) and a peak gust of 186 mph (299 km/h).

The New Haven Railroad from New Haven to Providence was particularly hard hit, as countless bridges along the Shore Line were destroyed or flooded, severing rail connections to badly affected cities (such as Westerly) in the process.


The hurricane entered Vermont at approximately 6:00 P.M. EST. Hurricane-force winds caused extensive damage to trees, buildings, and power lines. Over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of public roads were blocked, and it took months for crews to reopen some of the roads. Despite the damage, the storm only killed 5 people in Vermont.

New Hampshire
Even though the storm center tracked further west through Vermont, New Hampshire received appreciable damage. As in Vermont, very high winds brought down numerous trees and power lines, but rainfall totals in New Hampshire were significantly less than those in other states. Only one inch (25 mm) of rain fell in Concord. But damage at Peterborough was worse; total damage there was stated to be $500,000 (1938 USD, $6.5 million 2005 USD), which included the destruction of 10 bridges. Much of the lower downtown burned because floodwaters prevented firefighters from reaching and extinguishing the blaze. Other communities also suffered considerable damage to forest resources. In New Hampshire, 13 people perished. At the Mt. Washington observatory, peak 5-minute sustained winds reached 136 m.p.h.


Damage in Maine was mostly limited to fallen trees and power outages. Storm surge was minimal, and winds remained below hurricane strength. The storm did not claim any lives in Maine


As the hurricane was transitioning into an extratropical cyclone, it tracked into southern Quebec. When the system initially crossed into Canada, it continued to produce heavy rain and very strong winds, but interaction with land had taken its toll. Nevertheless, the hurricane managed to blow down numerous trees throughout the region. Otherwise, damage was generally minimal.

Post 1938 Hurricanes

In contrast to the long span of relatively mild hurricane activity that preceded the 1938 hurricane, subsequent storm activity would prove to be much more frequent. In the ensuing years following the storm, the northeastern United States would get hit with a number of hurricanes, notably the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944, Hurricane Carol, Hurricane Edna, and Hurricane Hazel in 1954, the flooding remnants of Hurricane Connie, Hurricane Diane, Hurricane Ione in 1955, Hurricane Donna in 1960, more recently Hurricane Gloria in 1985, and later Hurricane Bob in 1991.

A few pictures:

A bit on Katharine Hepburn and her home, Fenwick:

Courtesy: The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Connecticut

On September 21st, 1938,  it came without warning. As the story goes, Katharine Hepburn was out playing golf in Fenwick as the monster storm was approaching. Hepburn and many other rode out the storm in Fenwick.

There was no radar or satellite or buoys. Nobody had any idea about what was about to roar ashore. Many experts today believe it would be likened to what we now know as a category 4 Hurricane.

Nearly 700 died in the storm. Along coastal New England 9,000 homes were destroyed including the Hepburn place in Fenwick.

These pictures, from the Connecticut Historical Society, show Kate sifting thru the ruins. So vast was her love of Fenwick, she would rebuild the home within one year, raising it several feet to try and keep any more storms at bay and stronger, out of brick, not wood. Nearly 60 years later that brick has held up just fine, leave it to Kate.


  1. 1938? You mean BEFORE Global-Zombie-Apocalypse-If-It-Bleeds-It-Leads-Influenza-Pandemic-Warming-Change-Disruption? How can such a thing be possible? I tell you, there has been NO "bad" weather before Al Gore SAYS there was, dammit, sob, gibber...

    I could go on but this is hardly the place. ;)

  2. Oh, DO go's the PERFECT place!! :)

  3. Revision: Not saying it's the perfect place by ANY means...(the bit rates on some of the shit I find and post PROVES that), 'Tis the perfect place to RANT about ANYTHING.....there....that I'll claim! :)

  4. Well then, with your blessing...

    Why do so few people still fail to find it suspicious that a man whose entire intellectual accomplishment consists of a BA in "Government" has been calling himself an expert on matters that speak directly to chaos theory and our very limited understanding of chaotic-dynamic systems? A man who had carefully positioned himself to reap cargo vessels stuffed with lucre if people believed in him and his hand-picked, highly funded (by fantastically wealthy ultra-elitists who make a point of funding anything that is anti-petroleum) "experts". A man who - and this is something he really SHOULD be respected for - learned how to make money from the weather. I mean, this is unprecedented, fantastic, jaw-dropping! You don't like the weather? It's because you aren't using the technology Al Gore is promoting!

    And the continuing disgraceful spectacle of governments rubbing their hands together in glee at the trillions of dollars they will collect in new taxes, and every man Jack from the grocer to the corner popcorn vendor jumping on the latest iteration of the "green" bandwagon, and the sickening hypocrisy of murderous dictators chiding the West in Copenhagen for not adopting Mr. Gore's tech en masse, and the TOTALLY COMPLICIT mass media selling ever more bottles of ketchup with stories about "anthropogenic weather", and their continued deliberate silence over Climategate...well! (pant pant)It's enough to make a grown man wonder whether to laugh or weep with shame at our collective gullibility.

    Nuff said!

  5. Now there....that's what I like to see! I'm one of the few people who truly like seeing opinions on blogs, even if the blog isn't political in nature....or even if I may, or may not always agree with the opinion :)

  6. Thenkyew. Nobody jumped in to say "what about the IPCC and those other scientists", which surprises me. I'll tell you anyway, because the kind of PITA I am.

    It's called jumping on the gravy train and riding that bugger as long as it lasts. It's called career relevance, publish or perish - principles which unfortunately rule the world of the working scientist. As for the IPCC, Dr. Pachauri is as well situated as Mr. Gore: he is heavily invested in both carbon cap-and-trade AND OIL RECOVERY TECHNOLOGY - a man with all bases wisely covered one might say.

    This is of course all a matter of public record; I don't believe in wasting people's time with rumors, hearsay, conspiracy theory, or my mere opinion. IMO opinion ought not to rule science; public policy, always for better or worse, but not the science behind it. There is no conspiracy: it's simple, timeless human greed. Now, you can go here and read as much as you like:

    ...and maybe ponder the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' attention to Mr. Gore contrasted with their passing over DOCTOR (Harvard med school cum laude, post-grad at Salk Institute for Biological Sciences) Michael Crichton's blockbuster "State of Fear" - the first thing he wrote since 1969 that curiously didn't instantly become a hit movie or TV series.

  7. ...ya know, I'm kinda surprised now that I think about it that the book was even considered for publishing. Dr. Crichton was only a novelist; Mr. Gore is the Global Energy Czar wannabe.

  8. I did read State of Fear, I found it interesting.

  9. Darn tootin' it was! :)