Looking Back: 80th Anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938

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Friday, September 21 marks the 80th Anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.  Also known as the Long Island express, the fast-moving powerful hurricane came without warning to southern New England. It slammed into Long Island, NY and then CT, bringing catastrophic wind damage, storm surge flooding and flooding rainfall.

Based on our current wind scale–The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale–the Hurricane of ’38 was a Category 3 storm, with sustained winds of 121mph and a peak gust of 186mph measured at the Blue Hill Observatory in MA.  Providence recorded sustained winds of 100 mph with a gust to 125 mph and Block Island clocked sustained winds of 91 mph with a gust to 121 mph.

While the wind caused extensive damage and widespread power outages, the storm surge was absolutely devastating.

Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, with downtown Providence, Rhode Island getting submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet.  Most homes, marinas and yacht clubs along Narragansett Bay were wiped out by a 12-15ft storm surge.

The storm moved north at a rapid pace, travelling more than 400 miles in 8 hours from east of Cape Hatteras to the New England shore.  That’s a speed of more than 50 mph!  That forward speed allowed it to maintain it’s strength as it approached New England, unlike so many hurricanes that weaken as they move into the cooler waters south of us.

New Englanders were given no warning about the hurricane.  Forecasters from the National Weather Service Office (in North Carolina) had assumed the storm would stay out to sea.  The forecast for the Eastern seaboard called only for high wind and gale advisories.

BY THE NUMBERS (courtesy NOAA):

PUBLIC IMPACT
Deaths: 564
Injured: >1,700
BOATING IMPACT
Destroyed: 2,600
Damaged: 3,300
HOMES/BUILDINGS
Destroyed: 8,900
Damaged: > 15,000

The Great Hurricane of ’38 should be a lesson and reminder to all of southern New England that major hurricanes CAN and HAVE hit us.  While we can’t prevent hurricanes, today’s technology and improved forecasting skills will allow us to save lives and be better prepared for any potential hits. 

We can use recent Hurricane Florence as an example.  The 5-day forecast track of the hurricane was remarkably close to where the storm made landfall.  That lead time allowed local governments and residents in the Carolinas to prepare for storm and, no doubt, this saved lives. 

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