The Long Island Express demolished entire beachfront communities, killed 682 people, redrew beach topography, and laid bare vast tracts of forest in New England. The Hurricane of 1938 was a rare monster that struck New England totally by surprise and with a force unheard of in a region that considered such a storm a tropical beast.
Hurricanes that strike the Caribbean and the eastern United States originate off the northwest coast of Africa, requiring precise conditions to form. Scattered thunderclouds begin to spiral, and one of every 10 will intensify to hurricane force, but it is unknown exactly what causes that 10th storm to grow and consolidate. The sea must be at least 200 feet deep, the water surface more than about 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sea free of islands or volcanic mountains to slow the developing storm. The cloud cluster must be close to the equator but not too close because it needs planetary spin, which is absent along the equator.
The wind that eventually grew into the great storm was first noticed by French meteorologists in the Sahara Desert, who early in September observed unstable air and notified weather posts in the Caribbean by shortwave radio. The storm gathered strength as it crossed the Atlantic and was a Category 5 by 2 a.m. Sept. 19. At 8 a.m. it was 650 miles east-southeast of Florida, moving at 20 mph toward Florida.
The storm narrowly missed Florida and the Carolinas and was expected to die at sea. Hurricanes usually veer northeast after crossing the Caribbean, losing strength in the colder water, and this storm seemed to be following the normal path to oblivion in the Temperate Zone. Winds had diminished from 155 mph the morning of Sept. 20 to 138 at 8 p.m., the barometer was rising, and the storm, moving north-northeast, was downgraded to Category 3.
But young Charles Pierce at the Washington, D.C., Weather Bureau on Sept. 21 observed high pressure over the Appalachians and to the east and calculated the storm would be caught between those high pressure troughs and would make landfall on Long Island. He was overruled, however, by experienced weathermen who said precedent predicted the storm would curve northeast out to sea.
Pierce turned out to be correct. The storm struck the afternoon of Sept. 21. The day started sunny, a relief after several days of rain, with impressive breakers rolling in. But the weather changed that afternoon, the Atlantic turned gray and the sky yellow, and wind blew in gusts out of the southeast.
“As swift and sure as a Joe Louis punch, the hurricane darted up the Atlantic coast at fifty, sixty, and seventy mils an hour, faster than most cars could travel in 1938,” writes R.A. Scotti in “Sudden Sea — The Great Hurricane of 1938.” It arrived unannounced and struck without warning. Town by town the electricity and phones went out, train service was halted, and buses and trolleys were stalled. “Houses went to sea, boats came ashore, and ordinary objects were recast.” A car became a tomb, rooftops were rafts, a shingle became a deadly projectile, and a pier became a battering ram.
People in beachfront houses on Long Island retreated to second floors, then third floors, then attics as the storm roared ashore. Some rode roofs that broke away, and some were washed to sea. Some bodies were found far away, and some were never found.
In Hartford, Conn., the Connecticut River rose 19.4 feet above flood stage to 35.4 feet. Winds knocked down 16,000 hardwood trees in Springfield, Mass., and in the maple woods of Vermont and still blew at more than 100 mph at Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The waters of Lake Champlain, which is 435 square miles in area, rose by two feet.
The weather was perfect the next day, but people awoke to a new landscape. “Boats were everywhere except at their moorings.” Roads were buried beneath sand or blocked by trees and debris, service stations couldn’t pump gas without electricity; almost 20,000 buildings were wrecked and 75,000 damaged, and 26,000 cars were ruined. The storm opened seven passages on Long Island, widened Moriches Inlet, washed away centuries-old dunes and carved new coastlines; the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey said maps of Long Island and the New England coast were useless. Contrasting photos of Napatree, R.I., show a line of houses and the beach club on Sept. 21, and a day later the same stretch looks like a barren sand spit in a nature preserve. People remarked on the purity of the air for many days after the storm. “At night, you could see stars you never could see before,” said one man. “… I feel Mother Nature does that every once in a while — like washing an old dirty shirt.”
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