78th Anniversary - September 21, 1938
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Timeline of Events from "The Long Island Express: Tracking the Hurricane of 1938" by Roger K. Brickner
In 1938, the setup of the National Weather Service was very different than it is today. It was called the U.S. Weather Bureau and there were numerous smaller offices across the country that were added slowly in the future. At this time, the Jacksonville, FL Weather Bureau office issued hurricane information and gale warnings north to Cape Hatteras. Thereafter, the Hurricane Center in Washington, D.C. issued the warnings and information through the coast of Maine. The local office in 1938 was located in the Whitehall Building in Battery Place in downtown Manhattan.
Also, when the Weather Bureau issued Gale and Storm warnings, they indicated what direction the wind was coming from. When you see "northeast storm warnings," that means the wind will be coming out of the northeast.
All times listed are in Eastern Standard Time.
Sunday September 18
The frontal system that will help the hurricane pass over Long Island is already dropping copious amounts of rainfall on Long Island and across the northeast.
- Center of the hurricane was just north of Puerto Rico. At this time, the Jacksonville Weather Bureau office believed the hurricane would hit Florida.
Monday September 19
- Hurricane located 650 miles east-southeast of Miami. Northeast storm warnings issued from Key West, FL to Jacksonville, FL.
The northeast was still more concerned by the heavy rainfall and potential river flooding.
- The hurricane is now showing a slight turn to the northwest. Caution continues to be urged for the Florida coast.
Tuesday September 20
Rain and fog continue over the Northeast with little concern for the hurricane. Rivers were rising rapidly due to the high amount of rainfall associated with the front.
- The hurricane is now located about 350 miles east of Daytona Beach, FL. The Jacksonville office is indicating that the storm will speed up and take a turn to the north or northeast.
- Advisory issued from the Jacksonville office mentioning the "severe hurricane". The hurricane central pressure was close to 28.00" and about 400 miles east of Jacksonville, FL moving due north. Storm warnings now extend up to Atlantic City, NJ.
Wednesday September 21
Because the Jacksonville office had told all mariners to stay off the waters, there were very few reports of the hurricane's exact strength and location.
- Storm located about 275 miles south of Cape Hatteras.
After later analysis of the storm, it turns out the hurricane was actually 60 miles farther north and slightly more east.
- Center of hurricane now approximately 140 miles ENE of Cape Hatteras. This will be the last advisory from the Jacksonville office.
No alerts or warnings issued north of Atlantic City yet.
- Washington office takes over and issues northeast storm warnings north of Atlantic City and south of Block Island and southeast storm warnings from Block Island to Eastport, Maine. This advisory now called the hurricane a tropical storm and had it centered 75 miles from Cape Hatteras. It was actually further away from Cape Hatteras than written in the advisory. The storm was also much larger and stronger than anticipated.
The NYC office, at this point, has not received a single piece of information about the exact location or strength of the storm.
- The hurricane is now about 200 miles due south of Fire Island.
- Washington office issued an advisory with no mention of a hurricane or tropical storm. They mentioned that gale force winds will be likely and diminish overnight.
- The hurricane is located about 100-120 miles SE of Atlantic City and about 150 miles south of Fire Island.
- Conditions are beginning to deteriorate from NYC to the east end of Long Island. Pressure is dropping rapidly, winds are increasing and waves are building. Connecticut was still more concerned about the intense river flooding over the hurricane.
- Advisory from the Washington office now mentions that the storm is about 75 miles east-southeast of Atlantic City. It mentions the storm will pass over Long Island and Connecticut this afternoon. Reanalysis shows that the storm may have actually been about 120 miles southeast of the city much stronger and bigger than was mentioned in the advisory. It was now about 50 miles south of Cherry Grove, NY, on Fire Island.
- Hurricane gusts are already occurring over Fire Island and along the south shore of Long Island. Connecticut shore was experiencing gusts near 75 mph as well.
- In NYC, children were let out of school early. Heavy rains were occurring, trees were falling and power lines were falling down.
- In Saltaire, NY, on Fire Island, the boardwalks were being ripped and flipped over. Nobody was evacuated before the storm so many people on Fire Island were rushed into shelter.
- On the south shore of Long Island, debris was flying, phone lines were dead and power was out.
- In Connecticut, winds were not as strong but pressure was rapidly falling. Flooding was still the main concern.
- On the Long Island Sound, a Port Jefferson ferry had left at about 1:00 pm, heading to Bridgeport, CT. Conditions deteriorated so rapidly that the ferry could not continue, nor turn back. All 15 passengers on board were safe.
The hurricane made landfall sometime between 2:15pm and 2:45pm on September 21, 1938.
- The hurricane center was now somewhere near Centereach, NY although with new reanalysis data of the hurricane, this could be slightly different.
- New Jersey had gale force winds and downed trees, wires and other scattered debris.
- NYC was experiencing gusts between 80-100 mph. Because of the large amount of debris blocking drains, extensive flooding was occurring.
- In Saltaire NY, gusts likely reached at least 100 mph. Houses were disintegrating and being washed out to sea. After the eye of the hurricane passed through, the tidal surge began. It was called "the most horrifying aspect of the hurricane." Saltaire was split in half, which created one of the many inlets that formed on this day.
- In Westhampton Beach, a huge wave of water swept across the beach and engulfed many of the houses. Roofs were removed, windows broken and parts of houses were ripped apart.
- From New Haven, Connecticut on west, very heavy rain was observed, but would escape the strongest winds. Some trees and wires downed.
- From New Haven on points east,damage was much worse. Wind gusts were near 100 mph and harbors "quickly disintegrated" and widespread damage was occurring to the coasts.
- In Stonington, Connecticut, a train, the Bostonian, was stuck on the tracks due to debris. The 275 people on board sat on the train witnessing hurricane force winds and full houses floating by. Two people, in their attempt to get out, were quickly washed away. Eventually, the crew got the debris cleared and the train moving.
- The center of the hurricane is now somewhere near Meriden, CT. NYC was experiencing 60-70 mph sustained winds but rain was ending. Long Island was seeing wind gusts subside at this time.
- On Saltaire, NY, residents were still huddled in a shelter, cut off from the rest of the town due to an inlet being formed, One inlet, Shinnecock Inlet, formed during the storm and still remains today. Cracks in the Fire Island lighthouse formed and the Coast Guard station was "floating in the inlet.". Over 200 homes were completely destroyed on Fire Island.
- In Westhampton Beach, the tide began to recede and 29 people would lose their lives with about 153 out of 179 homes were destroyed.
- The Connecticut coast continued to lose boat after boat and experience extreme coastal flooding.
- Conditions were improving everywhere but damage was still being reported. A ferry slammed into a terminal in Staten Island. A second storm tide caused widespread power outages in NYC. Citizens on Fire Island were stranded from the mainland.
- In New London, CT, after the wind and surge had done their damage, a massive fire broke out around 4:30 pm. "It was the worst catastrophe ever to visit New London" since 1781.
- The storm was well into Vermont by this time and was continuing to transition to an "extratropical storm."
The following is a letter scanned from Richard Hendrickson's book "Winds of the Fish's Tail." It was written by his first wife, Dorothea Hendrickson, to her family in New Jersey on September 27, 1938.
(Click panel for larger image)
Other Storm Accounts and Perspectives
Westhampton Beach Perspective from George E. Burghard: SUNY Suffolk; Scott Mandia
In the Hurricane's Eye" A Nostalgic Recollection of the Man-Sized Hurricane of 1938 by Barbara Overton Christie: saltarian.com