New England has weathered its share of battering storms, and even an occasional tornado. With a few notable exceptions, however, most hurricanes that swirl northward along the East Coast veer out into the Atlantic without making landfall. Not so in 1938. The “Great New England Hurricane of 1938,” also known as “The Long Island Express” or simply “The Big One,” blindsided New Englanders that year, striking without warning in the afternoon of September 21.
Late in the day on September 19, 1938, weather forecasters who had alerted Floridians of the possibility of a hurricane landfall saw that the storm had turned north. As the storm seemed to be heading out to sea, most of them breathed a sigh of relief and went home. Forecasts issued for the eastern seaboard that day contained high wind and gale advisories, but made no mention of a hurricane. Most of the ships that might have reported the storm’s location had retreated to shore, waiting for the hurricane to spin itself out in the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Essentially unwatched, the hurricane abruptly tripled its northward speed, and traveled the 425 miles (700 km) from Cape Hatteras to Long Island in less than 8 hours.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 started as a tropical cyclone off of Cape Verde, Africa, on September 10. After threatening Florida on September 20, it moved north, and most forecasters believed it would head northeast to spin itself out in the North Atlantic Ocean. Instead, the storm accelerated northward, reaching forward speeds of up to 50 miles (80 kilometers) per hour, on a beeline for the southern shore of New England. Map courtesy of Hunter Allen.
When the storm plowed across Long Island and slammed into Connecticut, it was a Category 3 hurricane. The storm’s rapid northward motion amplified the wind speeds on the east side of the storm, and buildings disintegrated under the force of wind-driven waves and rain. In an example of spectacularly bad timing, landfall occurred at the same time as high tide, maximizing the height of the deadly surge of seawater that was pushed ashore by the storm.
Moorings at docks along the coast didn’t hold, so fishing boats and yachts were carried ashore by waves and wind. Here, homeowners found a large boat and industrial debris deposited in their yard. Photo by A. Morgan Stewart, The Day, courtesy of Peg Van Patten.
Beaches in Connecticut and Rhode Island were stripped clean of the summer cottages that had crowded their shores, and fishing boats were tossed about like toys, some settling as far as a mile inland. One startling arrangement of debris was a boat that had crashed right into a funeral parlor. As is common with strong hurricanes, many people died by drowning as the storm surge flooded their homes, schools, and businesses.
After battering the coast, the hurricane moved north, right into the heart of New England. When it was over, 57,000 homes from the Bahamas to Quebec were damaged or destroyed and around 600 people were dead (estimates vary). Total property damage from “The Big One” in New England was estimated at over $300 million in 1938—equivalent to almost $5 billion in 2010 dollars. Even when compared with the devastating Category 4 and 5 hurricanes that made landfall in the United States in 2004 and 2005, the Great Hurricane of 1938 still ranks as one of the most costly and deadly hurricanes in United States history.
What if another major hurricane were to hit New England this year? Would residents fare any better than they did in 1938?