The "Long Island Express" hurricane of September 21, 1938, also known as the "Great New England Hurricane", was at that time the costliest natural disaster ever experienced in the United States. It was also one of the deadliest, taking at least 600 lives on Long Island and in New England, many from storm surge flooding but also from inland flooding of rivers and streams and from causes related to the high winds. In the 21st century, this hurricane remains the benchmark by which all other destructive storms in the northeastern United Sates are measured.
The worst destruction occurred in coastal communities near and to the east of the path of the storm, where storm surges from 12 feet to as much as 25 feet and pounding surf obliterated buildings and flooded towns. In some areas the tidal flooding reached miles inland. Much has been said recently about the tremendous amount of property development and population increase that has occurred in these same areas since 1938 and about our susceptibility for even greater damage if such a storm were to strike again. The following quotation from a review of the hurricane written back in October 1938 and published in the WMR provides a sobering perspective for our current times. In the review, I. R. Tannehill (of the Washington Weather Bureau's Marine Division) cited accounts of previous storms in the region and noted:
"From these accounts it appears that the hurricane of September 1938 is not unprecedented in violence in the New England area; but the greater increase in population and property values since the early part of the 19th century accounts for economic losses in the recent hurricane which are probably in excess of all previous hurricanes in that area combined."
The hurricane of September 1938 is believed to have originated near the Cape Verde islands around the 10th of September from a tropical wave that moved off the coast of Africa a few days earlier. Cyclonic circulation noted near 19N, 37W on the morning of September 13, 1938 may have been the first direct observation of the storm that was to slam the northeast a week later. The storm was first definitively located based on ship records late in the day on September 16 near 21N 53W, at which time a Brazilian ship located near the center logged hurricane force winds and a barometric pressure of 28.31 inches (959 millibars). The first indication of the storm received by land based weather forecasters was during the evening of September 17 from a Dutch ship located to the south of the center.
Based on ship reports, and later land reports, the central pressure of the storm was believed to have been below 28.00 inches (948 millibars) from the 16th of September, when it was located well over 500 miles east-northeast of the northern Leeward Islands, until it made landfall on Long Island and Connecticut on the 21st. During that time, the storm curved in a gentle arc as it moved gradually from a west-northwest motion on the 16th to a northwest heading on the 19th followed by a more rapid turn towards the north and then north-northeast on the 20th of September.
The storm was initially believed to pose a threat to Florida and storm warnings were issued for that area during the morning of September 19, at which time the Hurricane was located 650 miles east of the south Florida coast and moving west-northwest at a fairly rapid 25 miles per hour. These warnings were lowered later in the day when reports indicated that the hurricane had turned more toward the northwest. On the morning of the 20th as the storm was located at a point 400 miles east of Jacksonville, FL, storm warnings (a generic warning which prior to 1958 referred to expected wind speeds between 28 and 63 knots, or between 33 and 72 miles per hour) were raised for eastern North Carolina by the Weather Bureau forecaster in Washington, DC. Twelve hours later they were extended north by the Washington forecaster to southern New Jersey, although no hurricane warnings were issued as it was believed the storm would remain offshore.
That course of action seemed to be confirmed on the morning of September 21 as ship reports located the center of the storm approximately 75 miles east of Cape Hatteras shortly after sunrise. This position, expected by forecasters, supported their opinion that the storm was continuing to curve more towards a northeast direction and therefore was likely to stay well off the east coast of the United States. At around that same time the pressure at Cape Hatteras bottomed out at around 29.30 inches (992 millibars) and shortly thereafter as the storm passed farther north peak winds of 65mph from the northwest were recorded. Even so, reports indicated that the storm was a very large hurricane with a large area of strong winds and so the storm warnings were extended north from Atlantic City to Eastport, Maine. At 10 AM they were raised to whole-gale warnings (a more specific warning for winds of 48 to 63 knots, or between 55 and 72 miles per hour) for the area south of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, but the ambiguously less threatening "Storm Warnings" remained in place from Sandy Hook on north.
In reality, rather than moving northeast out to sea, upon reaching the latitude of Cape Hatteras the forward direction of motion of the hurricane shifted quickly back to the left and from there it raced due north directly toward Long Island.
While there was advance notice given of a powerful hurricane passing by close enough to disrupt normal business along the coast, it is clear that the public at large and most forecasters were expecting only a glancing blow from a storm.
At 2:00pm that day, by which time according to some eyewitnesses the eye of the hurricane was already located near central Long Island, the Weather Bureau issued a warning "stating that the storm would likely pass over Long Island and Connecticut in the late afternoon or early night".
One of the key contributors to the difficulty in providing timely updates to the warnings was the rapid acceleration of the hurricane to an extremely fast forward motion as it approached the northeast coast. It moved from east of Cape Hatteras to near Burlington Vermont in roughly 12 hours, an average of near 50 miles per hour. It is believed that the storm may have moved at speeds as high as 70 miles per hour as it approached Long Island and southern New England making this the fastest moving hurricane ever observed.
The storm must have been very close to the latitude of Atlantic City at around 1:00 PM when barometers in that city reached their lowest readings. Reports of the time of landfall on Long Island ranged from as early as before 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM. The Monthly Weather Review from September 1938 describes the account of a weather observer at Brentwood, Long Island of a period of calm winds lasting an hour between 1:50 and 2:50 PM, during which time the weather included several periods of sunshine and at worse some drizzle. Other credible reports indicate that landfall occurred toward 3:30pm, although reports from the Connecticut coast indicate the arrival of lowest pressure west of New Haven before 4:00 PM. It is improbable that the storm could have moved from Atlantic City to Long Island in less than an hour and also unlikely that the storm could have moved from the south shore of Long Island to the Connecticut coast in less than half an hour, so the time of landfall may have been somewhere in the middle of the range of reports. Therefore, it is likely that the storm was moving north between 60 and 70 miles per hour as it approached Long Island and Connecticut.
The first landfall occurred over central Long Island, where the coast guard station at Bellport reported a pressure of 27.94 inches (946 millibars). Based on numerous reports of a period of calm over central and eastern Long Island during the height of the storm is believed that the eye had become somewhat elongated as it approached Long Island and was probably as much as 50 miles wide. This period of calm seems to have lasted the longest over central Long Island indicating the likely path across the island of the center of the large eye.
The storm crossed the Connecticut coastline between Bridgeport and New Haven with New Haven reporting a lowest pressure of 28.11 inches at 3:50pm. Other locations in Connecticut, presumably those closest to the path of the hurricane, recorded pressures as low as 28.00 inches.
From Connecticut, the storm continued to move very rapidly, but towards the north-northwest and the center passed near Burlington, VT at around 8:00 PM. At that time, the storm was still of hurricane strength and Burlington recorded a low barometer reading of 28.68 inches.
This hurricane is unprecedented in recent history in terms of its destructive storm surge along the northeast coast and the spread of hurricane conditions as far inland as northern Vermont and the Adirondack mountains of New York State. Tidal departures along Narragansett and Buzzards Bays ranged from 12 to 25 feet above mean low water, and downtown Providence, Rhode Island was inundated by over 10 feet of water. The hurricane also produced tremendous inland flooding as very heavy rains in a short period of time added to the impact of flooding caused by excessive rainfall for several days prior to the arrival of the hurricane.
Some wind and rain reports for the hurricane are listed below: