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The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

CAT 3 - September 21, 1938

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was one of the most destructive and powerful storms ever to strike Southern New England. This system developed in the far eastern Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands on September 4. It made a twelve day journey across the Atlantic and up the Eastern Seaboard before crashing ashore on September 21 at Suffolk County, Long Island, then into Milford, Connecticut. The eye of the hurricane was observed in New Haven, Connecticut, 10 miles east of Milford. The center made landfall at the time of astronomical high tide, moving north at 50 mph. Unlike most storms, this hurricane did not weaken on its way toward Southern New England, due to its rapid forward speed and its track. This kept the center of the storm over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Sustained hurricane force winds occurred throughout most of Southern New England. The strongest winds ever recorded in the region occurred at the Blue Hill Observatory with sustained winds of 121 mph and a peak gust of 186 mph. Sustained winds of 91 mph with a gust to 121 mph was reported on Block Island. Providence, Rhode Island recorded sustained winds of 100 mph with a gust to 125 mph. Extensive damage occurred to roofs, trees and crops. Widespread power outages occurred, which in some areas lasted several weeks. In Connecticut, downed power lines resulted in catastrophic fires to sections of New London and Mystic. The lowest pressure at the time of landfall occurred on the south side of Long Island, at Bellport, where a reading of 27.94 inches was recorded. Other low pressures included 28.00 inches in Middletown, Connecticut and 28.04 inches in Hartford, Connecticut.

The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The destructive power of the storm surge was felt throughout the coastal community. Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet. Sections of Falmouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts were submerged under as much as 8 feet of water. All three locations had very rapid tides increased within 1.5 hours of the highest water mark. (Storm tide is the combination of the storm surge plus normal astronomical tide.)

Rainfall from this hurricane resulted in severe river flooding across sections of Massachusetts and Connecticut. Three to six inches fell across much of western Massachusetts and all but extreme eastern Connecticut. Considerably less rain occurred to the east across Rhode Island and the remainder of Massachusetts. The rainfall from the hurricane added to the amounts that had occurred with a frontal system several days before the hurricane struck. The combined effects from the frontal system and the hurricane produced rainfall of 10 to 17 inches across most of the Connecticut River Valley. This resulted in some of the worst flooding ever recorded in this area. Roadways were washed away along with sections of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad lines. The Connecticut River, in Hartford reached a level of 35.4 feet, which was 19.4 feet above flood stage. Further upstream, in the vicinity of Springfield, Massachusetts, the river rose to 6 to 10 feet above flood stage, causing significant damage. A total of 8,900 homes, cottages and buildings were destroyed, and over 15,000 were damaged by the hurricane. The marine community was devastated. Over 2,600 boats were destroyed, and over 3,300 damaged. Entire fleets were lost in marines and yacht clubs along Narragansett Bay. The hurricane was responsible for 564 deaths and at least 1,700 injuries in Southern New England. Damage to the fishing fleets in Southern New England was catastrophic. A total of 2,605 vessels were destroyed, with 3,369 damaged.

Summary
Widespread inland flooding, high winds inland, with severe coastal flooding.

PUBLIC IMPACT
Deaths: 564
Injured: >1,700

BOATING IMPACT
Destroyed: 2,600
Damaged: 3,300

HOMES/BUILDINGS
Destroyed: 8,900
Damaged: > 15,000
Catastrophic fires touched off by powerlines in Connecticut!

This information was taken from "Southern New England Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, A Ninety-eight Year Summary 1909-1997"
by David R. Vallee and Michael R. Dion, National Weather Service, Taunton, MA.

Hurricane Track

Wind Speed Maps

Rainfall Maps

River Flooding Graphs


These charts show river stage data from the 1938 hurricane, as well as modern Flood Stages for those gages. It is possible and in some cases likely that during the '38 Hurricane flooding commenced below today's flood stage, in particular due to the fact that there are levees in place in some communities that did not exist in the 1930s. If you have any questions about these charts please feel free to contact NWS Taunton at boxwebmaster@noaa.gov.

Storm Surge Maps

Other

Donald (Jerry) Ellis, Town Selectman of Bourne, MA

I was born on September 21, 1934 at Cape Cod Hospital. The dawn of my 4th birthday, September 21, 1938 broke gray and overcast in Sagamore at the home of my grandparents, where a birthday party for me was planned. Their home, Burgess Place, was located a short distance from the Cape Cod Canal. My party started at noontime.

A few neighborhood children arrived at noon as the sun brightened a bit. As the day wore on, the sky darkened. My grandfather, who had been listening to the radio, said that a storm might be headed our way. The wind was picking up but not threatening. Nevertheless, my father made the decision that the party was over and the children should be taken home. By 3:30 PM, my guests had all been safely delivered to their respective homes nearby. As the day wore on, the weather deteriorated, the wind picked up, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Ruth Bates West Warwick, RI (courtesy of Kelly Riley her granddaughter)

On September 21, 1938, Ruth Bates was 18 years old and worked at a store called The Candy Kitchen in downtown Arctic (West Warwick, Rhode Island). Mrs. Bates remembers the sky turning very dark, very quickly in the early afternoon. She recalls it was so dark, that it was almost like night had fallen. Then the winds became extremely gusty and the rain began to fall. Mrs. Bates says several things were striking about that day. The rain came gown 'in gushes', the wind was incredibly strong, the darkness was so stark, and the debris was everywhere. The winds were so strong that she was surprised the windows didnt blow in.

After the storm passed, it was late at night, 11 PM. The owner of the store and a coworker walked her home. Even though she lived less than a mile from the store, it took a long time to get home with the debris scattered everywhere. The route was extremely dark and eerie with no light coming from the homes. No candles were glowing in the windows. Trees were down on homes and Mrs. Bates home was hit as well. A large tree shattered the porch and came to rest on her home. As she finally made it home and was reunited with her family, her sister recounted her walk home from school through the debris. A large tree fell right in front of her sister. Had she been just a second earlier, she would have undoubtedly been hurt. Initially, they had no idea what happened which made the time difficult and scary. Over the course of the next few days, the cause of the storm was revealed to be a hurricane. Mrs. Bates family got reports of the extreme damage in other parts of Rhode Island. She remembers reading about the homes along the coast that were completely washed away and about the flooding in downtown Providence.

Benjamin Beekman Woodbury, NY (courtesy of Scott A. Mandia)

On September 21,1938, I was two months shy of my 7th birthday. My mother and father had taken my older brother (18) and I out to spend a few days at my aunt's summer bungalow on Hampton Boulevard in Mastic, Long Island. We lived in Queens, New York, and it was always nice to relax in the country. My father docked his 16 foot open boat, the "Nancy B.", at the nearby Mastic Marina at the foot of Riviera Drive, opposite Pattersquash Island. He had built his own small dock at right angles to the shore; at that time no special permit was required for small boats. I remember that my mother was trying to get me to eat my "H O Oats", a breakfast cereal that I didn't especially like. Our bungalow had bottled gas for cooking but we had to get our water from the Mastic Railroad Station, which had a hand operated water pump at that time. We had no electricity and relied on kerosene lamps for night lighting. The wind was howling outside and she said God was punishing me for not eating my cereal. Strange to say, father said he could actually hear the ocean waves for a day or two before the hurricane hit. Normally, we couldn't hear them since our bungalow was about four miles from the ocean. I don't remember what time it was, but soon my father got us into our car, a 1933 Plymouth, for safety, fearing that the bungalow would collapse from the wind. We rode out the storm the rest of the day inside the car.

The next day we drove along Montauk Highway toward Center Moriches but found the bridge over the Forge River, just past John Duck's duck farm, was covered with water and no traffic could pass. We also tried to drive down to the Marina to check on the status of our boat but, due to the flooding, couldn't get within several blocks of the Marina. We had to stop and turn around at Ward's General Store on Riviera Boulevard, which, I believe, is still there today under another name. The following day the water had receded enough to allow us to get down to the dock where we found the dock was still there but the boat was missing. The ropes used to tie it to the dock had broken or were missing. Father then began to search for it, driving up and down the streets adjacent to the Marina. Sure enough, after some time we spotted it upside down on the front lawn of a house several blocks away. I can remember that when we turned it over, the interior was filled with sea grass and a dead frog! The boat was otherwise undamaged except for a hole in the bottom, made by one of the two inch diameter mooring sticks used at the dock. The height of that mooring stick was about three feet above the water, which is how high the boat was lifted by the storm surge when the stick punctured the hull. We had no trailer at that time so the boat had to be lifted up onto the roof of the car and tied securely to bring it home for repair. We were later able to drive into Center Moriches where I remember seeing the entire green shingled pitched roof of a large building that had been lifted off and in the middle of Montauk Highway. Traffic had to be routed around it and I got a good look at it as we slowly passed by. Father noted that, of the summer houses built near the Marina, the only ones surviving were those that had been built on wooden pilings driven deep into the ground. Houses that had been built on, and supported by, cement blocks, were gone without a trace. Before the hurricane, there had been a battered red "lifeboat", half in the marina canal and half up on the land. There was an old retired man," Jack" we called him, who was always seen sifting in this boat, fishing for snappers in the canal with his bamboo snapper pole and bob. He was almost part of the scenery, leaning out over the stern and watching the bob to see if it went under, pulled by a snapper. He lived in a summer bungalow house near the beach that, unfortunately, was built on cement blocks. After the hurricane, "Jack", the red lifeboat, and Jack's house were all gone and never seen again. We never found out what happened to him.

View Great Hurricane Events in a larger map

Event Date Town State Location Time
WMUR-TV Hurricane Talk Sept. 16th 2013 Stratham NH Cooperative Middle School 7:30 PM
9/21/1938 - A Day to Commemorate Sept. 21st 2013 Milton MA Blue Hill Observatory 10:00 AM
Falmouth Community Emergency Fair Sept. 28th 2013 Falmouth MA Falmouth Community Emergency Fair 10:00 AM



Source Citation

F. Barrows Colton. "The Geography of Hurricanes." The National geographic Magazine April, 1939. Print.

The Great Hurricane and Tidal Wave Rhode Island. Providence Journal, 1938. Print.

Hurricane Pictures of Greater Fall River. Fall River Herald News, 1938. Print.

Minsinger, William E. The 1938 Hurricane: An Historical and Pictorial Summary. Vermont: Greenhills Book, 1988. Print.

Sheets, Dr. Bob, and Jack Williams. Hurricane Watch. New York: Vintage Books, 2001. Print.

Emanuel, Kerry. Divine Wind. New York: Oxford, 2005. Print.

Gordon, Bernard. Hurricane in Southern New England. Watch Hill RI: Book and Tackle Shop, 1976. Print.

Jarvinen, Brian R. Storm Tides in 12 Tropical Cyclones (including Four Intense New England Hurricanes). 2006.

Paulsen, Carl et al. Hurricane Floods of September 1938. 1940.

Vallee, David R. and Michael R. Dion, "Southern New England Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, A Ninety-eight Year Summary 1909-1997" National Weather Service, Taunton, MA.


Many Thanks to the plethora of photos and interviews from the following Sources:
Risk Management Solutions Inc
Scott A. Mandia from Suffolk County Community College
Nick Panico Collection
Dr. Isaac Ginis of University of RI
Standard Times in New Bedford
Springfield Republican in Springfield, MA
The Westerly Sun in Westerly, RI
Connecticut Valley Historical Museum
Leslie Jones collection from the Boston Public Library
Town of Bourne Archievs
Edward Bellamy Memorial Association
Newport Historical Society
Connecticut State Archives
Dick Shelton
Mystic Seaport
Guilford Free Library
Connecticut State Library
The Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford
Charles Gunn Papers, Archieves and Special Collections of the University of Connecticut Libraries
Forest History Society
NH Homeland Security and Emergency Management
MEMA
Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Ruth Bates
Donald Ellis