1938 Hurricane - September 21, 1938.
WINDS: 120-mph (moving at 50-mph).
PRESSURE: 27.94 inches/946 mb.
STORM - SURGE: 12 - 16 feet above Mean Tide ?
LEFT: Wind gusts well over 100-mph bring down the steeple of the oldest
church in Danielson, Connecticut, during the 1938 Hurricane. RIGHT:
Oceanfront home on Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island after the 1938
Hurricane (Photos Courtesy of Providence Journal - 1940).
The 1938 Hurricane is the strongest tropical cyclone to strike the
Atlantic coast between Virginia and Massachusetts since at least 1869.
Along the Atlantic coast of the United States (north of Florida) - only
Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954) were more intense at landfall.
Every record for wind speed, tidal surge, and barometric pressure in
New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island - can be traced to this single
In terms of fatalities and property damage - the 1938 hurricane stands
as one of the worst disasters in American history. In a matter of
hours, 600 people were killed, 3500 were injured, and more than 75,000
buildings were damaged. The states of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode
Island, suffered their worst natural disaster in recorded history. The
tidal wave like storm-surge that hit Long Island and Rhode Island was
so severe, that earthquake instruments 3,000-miles away recorded it on
seismographs. As a final cruelty - the residents of the northeast had
little or no warning that this extreme meteorological event was
unfolding before them.
The 1938 hurricane originated in the far eastern Atlantic. Reports from
mariners place the storm 350 miles north of Puerto Rico on September
16th, then heading in the general direction of the Bahamas and Florida.
However, by September 20th, the U.S. Weather Bureau received ship
reports that the cyclone had now turned north - traveling roughly
parallel to the U.S. coastline. This was a common motion for Atlantic
Thinking the storm would follow the normal northeast path and recurve
out to sea east of Cape Hatteras, the Weather Service no longer
considered the storm a threat. From later research and analysis, it
appears the storm not only strengthened off the coastline of the
southeastern United States, but rapidly accelerated northward. Instead
of recurving out to sea - the storm headed straight north, hitting
central Long Island, NY, then crossing the Connecticut coast near New
Haven at 3:30 PM on Wednesday, September 21, 1938.
The track of the 1938 hurricane from the tropical Atlantic to landfall
in the Northeastern United States ( Track chart courtesy of National
At the time of landfall on central Long Island, sustained winds in the
1938 hurricane have been estimated at 115 to 120-mph. However, the
extreme forward speed of the storm (estimated at up to 50-mph)
increased the winds on the right side of the storm to much stronger
values. Some conservative estimates place the peak winds to the east of
the center at 150-mph along the immediate coastline. The strongest
winds in the 38 cyclone occurred on eastern Long Island, in
southeastern Connecticut, and in southern Rhode Island. However,
because of the rapid movement of the storm - inland areas of eastern
Massachusetts experienced sustained hurricane force winds as well. Few
weather recording stations were located near the area of maximum winds
- and an even lesser number survived the storm (Simpson & Riehl -1981).
A gust of 120-mph was recorded at the Watch Hill Lighthouse in Rhode
Island, before the weather tower collapsed. The Harbormaster's Office
in New London, Connecticut, recorded sustained winds of 98-mph until
the roof blew off. At Blue Hills Observatory south of Boston, winds of
121-mph with gusts to 186-mph were recorded. The Blue Hill measurements
were taken at an elevation of 700 feet - significantly higher than the
standard 33-foot elevation for wind measurements. However, Blue Hill,
Massachusetts is more than 100-miles inland from where the 38 Hurricane
made landfall. It seems likely that peak wind gusts on eastern Long
Island, and along the Rhode Island coast were close to 150-mph. The
true value of the peak winds in the 38 hurricane may never been known.
The lowest barometric pressure recorded on land was 27.94 inches (946
mb) at the Coast Guard Station in Bellport, Long Island. In
Connecticut, a low pressure of 27.99 inches (948 mb) was recorded on
the Wesleyan campus in Middletown, while the Yale School of Forestry in
New Haven, recorded a pressure of 28.05 inches (950 mb) on a barograph
(Riehl-1981). Based on pressure reports, the eye of the 38 Hurricane
was about 20 to 30-miles wide. On Long Island the eye passed over the
area from Bellport to Southhampton. In Connecticut the eye crossed the
coast from New Haven to Saybrook.
The 1938 hurricane produced the some of the most extreme coastal
flooding ever known on the United States Atlantic coast. The 38 storm
created a very fast moving storm surge more characteristic of a strong
category 4 hurricane (winds 131 - 155 mph). This occurred because of
the combination of a strong hurricane, moving at an extreme forward
speed (50-mph), and striking the coast at almost the exact time of the
autumnal high tide. Tidal surges up to 16-feet above mean sea level on
Long Island and Rhode Island, and up to 12-feet above m.s.l. in eastern
Connecticut, have been estimated. Several newspaper reports from the
time of the 38 hurricane report damage to buildings more than 20-feet
above sea level.
The 1938 hurricane produced winds of unimaginable fury across eastern
Long Island, eastern Connecticut, and southern Rhode Island. The power
of the wind carried away roofs, church steeples, factory buildings, and
thousands of smaller structures. On Long Island, several 300-foot steel
and concrete-bolted RCA radio towers were twisted into unrecognizable
shapes by the wind. In Stonington, Connecticut, the entire top floor of
the three-story, 500,000 square-foot brick Schneider factory blew away.
Many who experienced the 38 storm along the immediate coastline,
reported the sound of the wind reached an incredible high pitch -
almost a scream. The air became intensely humid. The sight and sounds
of the storm even inspired a book - A Wind To Shake The World, by
Everett S. Allen.
The extreme storm surge of the 1938 hurricane was beyond anything
coastal residents along the northeast coast had ever experienced or
written about. There was no historical comparison. Several survivors
along the coast of Rhode Island, stated that at the height of the
hurricane, they saw a 40-foot fog bank rolling toward the beach, when
the bank got closer, they realized it wasn't fog - it was water
(Whipple - 1940). Along the open ocean facing coastal roads in Rhode
Island and Long Island - the damage was horrific. Whole beach
communities were swept away - some without a trace.
Napatree Point, Rhode Island - before and after the Hurricane of 38.
The 38 storm was a textbook example of what a severe tropical cyclone
can do to a barrier island in a few hours. Two short docks are visible
in the center of both photographs. (Photos Lewis R. Greene 1938).
At 3:50 P.M. on Napatree Point in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, the storm
surge struck the two mile long barrier island with full fury.
Forty-four summer homes, the yacht club building, and seventeen people
were swept into the Atlantic and never seen again. In Westerly, the
four mile long Misquamicut Beach was totally wiped clean of buildings,
more than 500 beach homes were swept away. At least 100 people were
killed in the Westerly area alone. Dozens of people, including whole
families, clung to rooftops and floating debris, as they rode the
wreckage across the bay to the mainland. In Charlestown, Green Hill,
Matunuck, Jerusalem, Galilee, the story was the same- many were dead or
The 38 hurricane also sent a tidal surge of epic proportions funneling
up Narragansett Bay. The bay shore towns of East Greenwich, Barrington,
and Warwick suffered catastrophic damage. Whole rows of buildings
collapsed into the raging surf. On Conanicut Island in the middle of
Narraganset Bay, a school bus full of grade school children was swept
off a narrow causeway and into the raging storm surge, killing seven of
ten children. Providence was flooded with 14 feet of water, submerging
hundreds of cars, trolleys, and buildings. Hundreds of people were
marooned on the upper floors of office buildings in downtown
Providence. The one-hundred-seventeen year old, 71-foot
steel-reinforced lighthouse tower on Whale Rock, could not even stand
against the 38 hurricane - it was swept away, taking the lighthouse
keeper to his death.
As the 1938 hurricane engulfed Rhode Island all sense of normalcy and
order were lost. The best and worst of human nature came out. As writer
David Cornel De Jong looked out his third floor office at civilization
slowly unraveling in downtown Providence he wrote:
"They came, neck deep, or swimming, rising out of the water and
disappearing through the demolished store windows. At first there were
few, then there were hordes, assisting each other. They seemed
organized, almost regimented, as if they'd daily drilled and prepared
for this event, the like of which hadn't happened in a hundred and
twenty years. They were brazen and insatiable; they swarmed like rats;
they took everything. When a few policeman came past in a rowboat, they
didn't stop their looting. They knew they outnumbered the police. "
LEFT: At 4:45 p.m. the storm surge of the 1938 hurricane reaches the
very heart of Providence, Rhode Island. Waves can be seen in front of
the Biltmore Hotel (right building), while marooned pedestrians gather
on the steps of Providence City Hall. RIGHT: Looking down Dorrance
Street at the height of the hurricane. (Photos Providence Journal
In the days following the cyclone southern Rhode Islanders were in a
state of grief-stricken shock. The first days after the storm were a
somber time - the dead and injured were everywhere. As police and fire
rescue teams picked their way through the devastated coastal
communities, the number of dead mounted quickly. In the first three
days after the cyclone -132 bodies were recovered along the Rhode
Island coastline. After five days - the number of known dead passed
200. Entire families had perished in the tidal surge. A week after the
storm, more than 150 people were still missing. The number of dead
mounted so fast - that morgues in the coastal towns of Rhode Island had
to have embalming fluid sent from Providence (Allen - 1976).
The scene was similar on eastern Long Island, New York. Although
eastern Long Island was mostly rural in 1938, there were several small
communities spread along the south shore. The combination of 150-mph
wind gusts and a huge tidal surge - swept away all traces of
civilization. The area from eastern Fire Island to Southhampton looked
as if a 50-foot tidal wave had hit - nothing was left standing. The
storm surge swept completely across the narrow island into the Bay.
Most of the buildings on Fire Island and Westhampton Beach washed up on
the mainland. The storm surge was of such fury, that it created a new
inlet along the coast - Shinnecock Inlet. Around the Westhampton Beach
area, Red Cross workers had to use utility grid maps to figure out
where roads had been (Whipple 1969). More than 60 people were killed on
eastern Long Island. Several of the dead were found wearing only shoes
and socks - the wind had stripped all clothing.
The eastern end of Fire Island, NY near Moriches Inlet after the 1938
hurricane. The main road through the island is just visible in the
center of the lower portion of the photograph. More than 200 homes had
been perched on dunes 20 feet high. The horrific storm tide swept
nearly everything away. (Photo Courtesy Mitchel Field, 2nd Air Base
Squadron - U.S. Army, NY 1938).
LEFT: Temporary morgue on eastern Long Island following the 38
hurricane. RIGHT: Buildings in a tidal marsh near Newport, Rhode Island
after the storm (Courtesy Connecticut Circle Magazine - 1940).
In Connecticut the destruction was equally shocking across the central
and eastern half of the state. Much of eastern Connecticut found itself
in the dangerous eastern semicircle of the cyclone. Although Long
Island offered some modest buffer to the huge ocean surges that hit the
south shore of Long Island and Rhode Island - the furious waters of
Long Island Sound rose to unimaginable heights. In the beach towns of
Clinton and Westbrook, buildings were piled in a mass of wreckage
across coastal roads. In the Lymes, many beach cottages were swept away
or flattened. Along the shorefront in Stonington, buildings that were
swept off their foundations - floated two-miles inland. Many of those
killed along the Connecticut coast attempted to stay in flimsy seasonal
beach cottages that were only a few feet above sea level. Wind gusts
over 120-mph combined with tides up to 12-feet above normal -
devastated nearly every coastal community from New Haven to the Rhode
Island state line. In the coastal towns to the east of New Haven, the
US Postal Service was unable to deliver mail for more than a week.
After the 38 hurricane the scene in the City of New London was one of
shocking devastation. New London was first swept by the winds and storm
surge - then the waterfront business district caught fire - and burned
uncontrollably for ten hours. The day after the storm - the Fort Neck
section of town was a wasteland of twisted smoldering ruins. The
stately beach-front homes along Ocean Beach were leveled by the huge
storm surge. The permanently anchored 200-ton lightship at the head of
New London Harbor ended up on a sand bar two-miles away.
In another unfortunate turn of events - it had been raining for several
days before the hurricane hit. The mid - Atlantic States had been in a
trough of low pressure for almost a week. The entire week before the 38
hurricane hit - muggy, rainy weather affected the region. The ground
quickly became saturated across most of interior Connecticut - and most
rivers and streams were nearing bank-full by September 21st. As the
1938 hurricane crossed the Connecticut coast and marched inland - it
loosened monsoon-like downpours across Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Rainfall of 6 to 8 inches in four hours - sent water cascading down the
hilly terrain of interior Connecticut. Several days after the storm
hit, the Connecticut River rose to its second highest level ever
recorded in Hartford and Middletown. In Hartford, flood waters marooned
thousands of people in their homes and business. The East Hartford area
had water neck-deep in the street more than a mile from the rivers
edge. Thousands were left homeless.
A week after the storm, Connecticut reported 97 people killed, over
1000 injured, and several dozen missing.
Storm - surge destruction along the eastern Connecticut coast
(Stonington) following the 1938 hurricane (2nd Air Base Squadron -
Mitchel Field - 1938).
Connecticut River at Hartford - 4 times normal width. Arrow at top of
photo shows Travelers Insurance Tower. Hundreds of East Hartford homes
submerged. Millions in damage. Thousands homeless. (Courtesy of
Connecticut National Guard).
Although Boston and most of northern Massachusetts escaped any truly
severe damage from the 1938 hurricane, the area around New Bedford and
Buzzards Bay was heavily damaged. As the storm-surge drove up the
narrowing Buzzards Bay, Wareham lay right at the top of the bay. In
Onset and Wareham, the wind and waves flattened entire rows of
buildings and overturned automobiles. The area around Westport Beach
and Horseneck beach was especially hard hit. The day after the storm -
Horseneck Beach looked as if had been bombed. Buildings were
overturned, the bathhouses and the main road had been swept way, and
the coast was littered with debris. The New Bedford Port and docks were
in shambles after the storm. In one day - two-thirds of all the boats
docked in New Bedford Harbor sunk. Severe inland flooding also occurred
in Southbridge and Springfield, with residents stranded for several
days after the storm.
The true amount of damage from the 38 hurricane will never be known.
Some sections of the Rhode Island coast never recovered from the storm.
To this day - several inlets created during the 38 hurricane still
persist - along with the slabs and foundations of several buildings. As
with any widespread disaster, damage totals and fatalities vary from
agency to agency. The best Red Cross estimates report 600 to 700
killed, 3500 injured, 75,000 buildings damaged, 20,000 automobiles
destroyed, and 3,000 boats sunk. The regional power companies
collectively estimated that 10,000-miles of electric and telephone
wires came down in the storm.
The day after the 1938 hurricane slammed into the United States the
attention of the world was on major political events unfolding (Hitler
invaded Czechoslovakia). It was more than a week before news of the
appalling death and destruction along the U.S. Atlantic coast reached
the rest of the World. A month after the storm, people were still
missing. Although the 1938 hurricane was certainly not the strongest
hurricane to hit the United States, the combination of a strong
hurricane, moving very rapidly, and striking a densely populated area -
created property damage unequaled up to that time. The 1938 hurricane
did more damage than the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. According to
several publications - the total property damage was the greatest of
any natural disaster ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere up to that
© Michael A. Grammatico
This article was auto-posted by the ne.weather.moderated Weatherbot
program. The author is solely responsible for its content.
HURRICANE OF 1938
PM on Friday, March 4, 2005
Hey Lou, in the September 1938 Monthly Weather Review, they report that
a calm eye was observed at Brentwood, LI (probably over 15 miles west of
Bellport) between 1:50 and 2:50 pm on 9/21/1938. The description says
that cigarette smoke rose vertically into the air at this time (thats
pretty calm...although it predated the surgeon general's warning) and
there were periods when drizzle fell and also several periods where the
sun actually was out. The eye must have been huge...possibly elongated
ala Donna in 1960, or the back end falling apart ala Gloria (which seems
rather unlikely for the '38 storm). Given that ACY's lowest pressure
occurred only one hour before LI landfall, it was more like the Long
Island Rocket, than "express" and also implies the trremendous size of
the eye (or possibly the exaggeration of the Brentwood observer (perhaps
that was no ordinary cigarette).