Weather: The Great New England Hurricane

The Great New England Hurricane

Additional massive hurricanes such as the 1900 storm failed to reach the U.S. mainland for several decades, but again, another fierce blow was always lurking over the tropical horizon. In 1935, a Category-5 storm moved through the Florida Keys, but it stayed offshore. However, in 1938, good luck ran out, and a super-storm crossed the coastline—this time along the East Coast. On September 21, 1938, New England and Long Island experienced their greatest natural disaster ever. The death toll reached 600; about 30,000 people were injured, 93,000 were homeless, and 16,000 homes and businesses were destroyed. Property damage came to about four billion in 1990 dollars. Property damage was greater than the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the Chicago Fire of 1871.

The storm began like so many that reach the East Coast—off the west coast of Africa. On September 16, it had reached a point 500 miles north of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. Prior to the storm, heavy rains had completely saturated the soil in the Northeast. Several inches of rain had fallen that month in New England, and a hurricane would only add more problems.


Climate studies of New England hurricanes show that one or two 1938-type storms have occurred each century since the 1600s.

This system seemed innocent. It reached just east of Cape Hatteras around daybreak of September 21. The official forecast called for the storm to go harmlessly out to sea, but instead, a convergence of air along the East Coast forced the storm to move northward at an accelerating rate of 50 to 60 mph. By early afternoon, the storm center was crossing the Long island and Connecticut shoreline. By evening, its center reached Canada. That strong northward trajectory, combined with the storm's circulation in its eastern sector, created a massive tidal surge in southern New England and Long Island. The storm came when the tide was high, too. Trains were derailed as waves poured over tracks. Many drowned in their automobiles. Wind gusts as high as 186 mph were clocked at Milton, Massachusetts. Sustained winds reached 121 mph. Waves were estimated to be 30 to 40 feet high. Carla Carlson in Guilford, Connecticut, was stalled in traffic and decided to read while the road was being cleared. While she was reading, another tree came down and hit her car, killing her. And the book she was reading? Gone with the Wind.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weather © 2002 by Mel Goldstein, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.