1938 Hurricane

Weather History of the '38 Hurricane

One must keep in mind that back in 1938 there were no weather satellites, no weather radar, and no offshore weather buoys. The storm was tracked as it moved west from Africa and toward the Bahamas Islands. The U.S. Weather Bureau (now called National Weather Service) knew it was a powerful storm as it had reached category 5 strength on September 19 but it was believed that this hurricane would curve out to sea before reaching the Northeast. The Bureau tracked the storm on the 21st as it was off the coast of Norfolk, V.A., now a category 3 storm.

A large area of high pressure was located over the Atlantic Ocean just east of the coast which kept the storm close to the coast and moving northeastward. Charlie Pierce, a young research forecaster for the Bureau concluded that the storm would not continue to move northeast and curve out to sea but would instead track due north. He was overruled by more senior meteorologists and the official forecast was for cloudy skies and gusty conditions - but no hurricane (Francis, 1998). Because the official forecast was not cause for alarm, even as the winds picked up speed and the waves rolled in, nobody realized that a catastrophe was only a few hours away.

Instead of recurving out to sea, the storm moved due north and accelerated in forward speed to 70 mph. In the history of hurricanes, this is the fastest known forward speed recorded. The incredible forward speed of the storm caused wind speeds on the eastern side of the hurricane to be extremely fast. Because hurricane winds rotate counter-clockwise, the winds to the east of the eye are moving from south to north. Because the hurricane was also moving in the same direction, the forward speed added to the already powerful winds. Eastern Long Island and New England would later be hit with wind speeds that exceeded 180 mph!

Hurricane Winds - Click for Larger Image

The hurricane hit Long Island around 3:30 PM which was just a few hours before astronomical high tide. At this time the eye was about 50 miles across and the hurricane was about 500 miles wide (Francis, 1998). High tide was even higher than usual because of the Autumnal Equinox and new moon. Combined with winds gusting over 180 mph, few on eastern Long Island's south shore had a chance when the storm surge hit. Waves between 30 and 50 feet pounded the coastline with millions of tons of sea water, sweeping entire homes and families into the sea. The impact of the storm surge was so powerful that it was actually recorded on the earthquake seismograph at Fordham University in New York City (Francis, 1998). Most people did not even realize that a hurricane was upon them even as the waters began flooding their coastal homes. The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Long Island and 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. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet while downtown Westhampton Beach, a mile inland, was under 8 feet of water! Sections of Falmouth and New Bedford, Massachusetts were also submerged under as much as 8 feet of water.

Barometer Chart for September 1938 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 (Vallee & Dion, 1998). The barograph to the left was from the Western Union Experimental Lab at Water Mill, Long Island. (Source: Hendrickson, 1996)


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 (Vallee & Dion, 1998).



Rainfall from this hurricane resulted in severe river flooding across sections of New York, 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 the area (Vallee & Dion, 1998).

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Scott A. Mandia, Professor - Physical Sciences
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