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A look back at the disastrous Great New England Hurricane of 1938

If it struck today, the damage would be unimaginable

Damage from 1938 hurricane in Saltaire, N.Y., on Long Island. (Frank Markus via National Weather Service) (National Weather Service)

Eighty years ago, we had no cellphones or WiFi, and we certainly had no weather warnings. Few people, if anyone, knew that the most severe hurricane in southern New England history, known as the Long Island Express or the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, was about to strike.

You can imagine the confusion of fishermen eight decades ago when something on the barometer didn’t look quite right. It was a beautiful morning after all, and the forecast was fine; why was the needle plummeting so ominously low? Hordes of them set off from fishing towns dotting the southern New England coastline, bound into the fire-red sunrise in search of a good catch and a fair day’s pay.

Mackerel cirrus soaked up the morning sun like amber brushstrokes, while the glass-calm seas interrupted by occasional undulations looked like a black mirror below. But something was off, and one wise fisherman — Dan Grimshaw — decided to turn back. Most of the others continued onward, steaming out to work for the very last time.

Hundreds of miles south, trouble was brewing. But this was long before satellites; the only way forecasters knew something was up was from ship reports. The first news of trouble came on Sept. 10, when trade vessels first encountered storminess off the coast of Western Africa, near the Azores.

From there, the fledgling storm gathered strength, climbing to Category 5 status east of the Bahamas a little over a week later.

At 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 20, the Jacksonville Office of the U.S. Weather Bureau — a regional precursor to today’s 122 National Weather Service offices — issued a stern bulletin, warning of a “severe hurricane” that could hit Florida.

But it didn’t. Storm warnings were up for areas as far north as Atlantic City on the morning of Sept. 21; assuming the storm was passing harmlessly out to sea, the Jacksonville office transferred responsibility to the D.C. branch. Its 11:30 a.m. advisory mentioned no tropical systems. Instead, Washington called for gusty winds that would diminish into the evening. Until lunchtime, the New York City office still had yet to be handed any material on the storm.

At the D.C. office, a noontime meeting was called. Charles Pierce, 28, a “rookie” forecaster, asserted that an approaching trough west of the Bermuda High would scoop the storm up the coast. That, he argued, would slingshot it into New England. The veterans disagreed. Laughing at Pierce, they dismissed the storm as being one for the fish out over the open Atlantic. As they would soon learn, never discount a rookie.

By 2 p.m., things were going downhill fast. In just two hours, conditions along the Southern New England shoreline had deteriorated from partly cloudy to squall-like with winds of 70 mph whipping through. Around the top of the hour, the Washington office conceded the storm would strike New England, and issued a bulletin advising it would pass over Long Island and Connecticut. The warning came too late — the Category 3-equivalent storm made landfall roughly a half an hour later.

At its core, winds howled at a whopping 115 mph. That alone is bad, but consider this: The storm was moving at the forward speed of 70 mph when it made landfall, which is simply unheard of. Hurricanes do not move at highway speeds. This was an extremely unusual case, and part of the reason it struck without warning.

But that’s just half the battle. The hurricane’s exceptional forward speed amplified wind gusts east of the center. In other words, its motion combined with the inward-spiraling winds to enhance gusts well beyond anything ordinary for a Cat-3. So instead of a gust to 115, that suddenly became 115 + 70, or 185 mph. Indeed, a gust to 186 mph — stronger than anything recorded in Katrina, Harvey, Maria, or Irma — was measured at the Blue Hills Observatory in Milton, Mass.

The eyewall swept ashore sometime between 2 and 3 p.m., and carried homes from Long Island across the sound to coastal Connecticut! Terrified families huddled on their rooftops as their dwellings became life rafts; many drowned in the harrowing journey.

The 15-foot storm surge and roaring seas were so strong that a seismograph used to measure earthquakes in Alaska picked up the vibrations some 4,000 miles away. Seventy percent of the boats in New Bedford Harbor sank in the hurricane.

Millions of cubic tons of sand were pulled away or moved by the storm, rendering ocean floor elevation maps virtually useless. Up to a decade later, many ships became stuck as a result of the restructured seafloor. Eventually, cartographers were required to resurvey depths and shoreline inlets for maritime commerce.

The late Guy Stadig of Hingham, Mass., was 16 when the storm struck in 1938. He was living barely a quarter-mile inland in the Wollaston neighborhood of Quincy at the time. What struck him as the most incredible aspect of the storm was the suddenness and speed with which it arrived.

“There was no warning,” he said in a 2013 interview. “There were no weather forecasts. All of a sudden, branches, shingles and trees were flying. It was too dangerous to go outside.”

He did anyway, he said, to visit his mother in a nearby hospital. “We had to walk sideways to prevent from being blown over in the wind (which still was nowhere near is peak intensity). I still have a scar from the storm, but I don’t remember how I got it.”

The late Pauline Doucette, who would later marry Guy, lived in the nearby town of Redding. Age 12 at the time, she watched in horror as her family’s apple orchard was decimated. They were waiting for an 8-year-old girl from Virginia whom the family would be caring for while her parents were working abroad. She was scheduled to arrive the day of the hurricane. The girl never made it to Redding, and to Pauline’s knowledge was never heard from again.

All told, around 700 New Englanders were killed in the hellacious storm. Thousands of homes suffered massive destruction. A tenth of all trees in New England were felled in the storm — close to 2 billion, enough to encircle the earth. The fallen timber provided fresh fuel for toppled power lines to spark into massive fires. That led to several dozen additional deaths in Connecticut.

It’s hard to believe a calamity this massive happened just 80 years ago. Five billion dollars — adjusted for inflation — in damage resulted. It’s scarier to think that this not only can happen again — but it most certainly will. And southern New England simply isn’t ready.

NOAA operates a storm-surge model called SLOSH. With different inputs of wind speeds, storm strength, and direction of motion, a wide array of simulations can be run to determine the maximum theoretical storm surge that could be achieved anywhere in the coastal United States. The nationwide maximum: 38.4 feet in New Bedford Harbor — which could arise from a Category 4 storm riding into the Northeast.

Based on an analysis I prepared and presented at a 2016 meeting of the American Meteorological Society, if a storm matching the strength of the Hurricane of ’38 hit today, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island would see devastating impacts that could make much of the area uninhabitable for weeks. Regions hardest hit would include the west end of the Cape Cod Canal, as well as the entirety of the Cape.

Emergency planners would also be facing an impossible task in the wake of necessary evacuations, which would likely take more than two days to complete. Hurricane warnings are only issued within 36 hours of landfall, and most decision-makers wait for that alert to be issued.

In the scenario of a Category 4 hurricane sweeping just west of Cape Cod, the entire storm in Southeastern Massachusetts could rack up a price tag in the billions, and destroy many thousands of homes.

And this is increasingly likely as climate change shifts storm tracks and provides more fuel for massive storms. While the next “big one” in New England may be decades from striking, it also may not be that far away.