Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Hurricane of 1938 (H1938), a storm of monstrous proportions that blew through coastal New England on a cursory visit, carving out a gruesome path of death and destruction, and leaving coastal communities forever pondering their preparedness when faced with untold blows delivered by Mother Nature.
From Long Island to Rhode Island, hundreds of lives were lost as coastal residents, unsuspecting and unaware went about their daily routines reliant on weather forecasts that would later prove to be horribly wrong.
Extreme storm surge, created by multiple factors including track of the storm and a high tide at the new moon of the Autumnal Equinox, was responsible for the majority of deaths. Entire communities were obliterated, landscapes changed and families washed literally out to sea.
Forming in the Eastern Atlantic off the Cape Verde Islands, the storm developed and grew as it wound its way across the Atlantic, turning North of Puerto Rico and tracking up the Eastern Seaboard. Taking 12 long days to gather its wind, the storm delivered its message of doom, devastation and death in a matter of just a few hours’ time.
According to historical accounts, the massive hurricane’s forward momentum and speed, with estimates anywhere between 60 and 70 mph were contributing factors to its growth, strength and resultant widespread destruction. Unseasonably warm temperatures of the northeastern Atlantic waters, also a contributor to its consistent speed, did little to slow the storm’s march northwest toward land. Embracing the Gulf Stream waters, the Hurricane of 1938 maintained its gruesome velocity, as it whirl winded northwest descending upon seaside communities that sat vulnerable and unaware of its violent efficacy.
Categorized early on as a Category 5 hurricane while offshore the Southeastern U.S., H1938, tracked North, decreasing only to modern-day Category 3 (Saffir-Simpson Scale) status as the western edge of the storm made a pass at Cape Hatteras preparing for its debut on land. Continuing on a northwest path, the storm rolled over the waters of Long Island Sound, bringing violent winds, rains and raging waters ashore between noon and 2 pm at Long Island, NY. Maintaining momentum and hurtling forward, the storm moved ashore with Long Island feeling its full effect by 2:30 pm. Residents in coastal areas never received warning as seasoned forecasters predicted the storm would track east and out to sea. The eye, recorded as beginning its pass over Bayport, Suffolk County at 3:00 pm, engulfed all of Long Island by 4:00 pm. Witness reports said the eye’s arrival provided little respite from the battering winds and unrelenting deluge of ocean waters. Communications were believed to be wiped out immediately upon H1938’s landfall.
The storm wiped out seaside communities, fashioning a path of destruction that forever changed the Long Island shoreline, carving out inlets, creating landmasses and separating once land-inked communities by channels of sea.
Rhode Island falls prey
Winds along the New England coast were estimated at sustained 120-125 mph. Communications and weather stations were decimated along with the storm’s arrival, making attempts at maintaining real time data null. At Watch Hill, Rhode Island, one gust was recorded at 120 mph just before the tower and communications succumbed to the assault of the storm.
The wall of water coming ashore was so high and had such force that it was recorded on seismographs as far away as Alaska. The storm surge appeared as a dark wall, according to witness accounts. It was described by survivors as what they believed to be a 40 foot high fog bank rolling towards shore. At its approach, the optical illusion turned nightmarish as observers realized a solid wall of seawater bearing down upon the shoreline. (Whipple 1940)
Along the Rhode Island shoreline, coastal villages from Napatree Point to Galilee were destroyed. Where once bustling seaside communities and fishing ports lay, the dawn of September 22 revealed an oceanfront humbly battered and barren. An estimated four hundred cottages at Misquamicut and additional two hundred at Charlestown Pond and Charlestown by the Sea were swept away. The Westerly death toll alone was recorded at 100. In Matunuck and Matunuck point, concrete slabs remained where homes, cottages and seawall fell to the sea.
One account of heroism chronicled out of Galilee had a local fisherman, James Gamache, rescuing a group of five, with little but a rowboat and no oars. The five had ridden the waves on the roof of a home, torn from its foundation and deposited one half mile away along the state pier. Gamache is said to have left his 35 ft. dragger, secured to the sunken pier, and to have swam with his rowboat in tow to the rescue of the stranded victims. (Goudsouzian 2004)
The storm surge pushed quickly north up Narragansett Bay, wreaking destruction through Warwick, Pawtuxet Cove and depositing a sea of water measured at almost 14 ft. above mean tide in the state’s capitol at Providence. By 10 pm the Great New England Hurricane had moved across New England into Quebec, leaving a devastating lesson behind.
Historical estimates calculated the destruction at $306 million; in today’s terms at between $35 and $41 billion.
Historical information and photos courtesy of the following:
NOAA; National Hurricane Center; Keith C. Heidorn, PhD.; Office of the Secretary of State Rhode Island; New England Remembers The Hurricane of 1938, Aram Goudsouzian; The Great Hurricane and Tidal Wave, The Providence Journal Company (1938); The Great Hurricane 1938, Cherie Burns (2005); The Hurricane, September 21, 1938, Westerly Rhode Island and Vicinity, Cawley/Greene