The 1938 “Long Island Express” Hurricane
By Chuck Miceli on September 21, 2012, 10:00am
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While researching my novel, “Amanda’s Room,” I pondered the question, “What would it be like for New England to be threatened with a late-season category-five hurricane?” That led to my studying the history of hurricanes in New England, and that, in turn, led me to “The Long Island Express.” Several major hurricanes have hit New England, although not with the frequency or intensity of storms impacting other areas like the Gulf region or southeastern seaboard. The Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635 was possibly the most powerful in recorded history, although the sparse population of the impacted areas limited casualties and the lack of sophisticated instrumentation at the time make it difficult to determine the full extent of the storm’s power. The Great September Gale of 1815 hit New York as a category 3 storm and separated New York’s Rockaways and Long Beach into two separate barrier islands. The 1821 Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane created a storm surge in Manhattan of nearly 13 feet, the highest ever recorded for the area. The 1869 Saxby Gale did extensive damage to Maine’s coastline and the Canadian Outer Banks. And the 1893 New York hurricane eradicated the Long Island Town of Hog Island. However, in terms of raw power combined with total damage and loss of life, many regard the hurricane of 1938, commonly referred to as “The Long Island Express,” as the granddaddy of all New England hurricanes. On September 10, 1938, the storm started out meekly off the coast of Africa. As it moved westward, fueled by the warm, moist air over the mid-Atlantic, the storm grew in intensity. Ten days later, still east of the Bahamas, it reached what today would be rated as a category 5 strength. At this point, the hurricane’s behavior shifted from the norm. Most storms either made landfall somewhere along the southeastern to mid-Atlantic coast, or tracked northeasterly and veered harmlessly out to sea again. But a deep trough over Appalachia, combined with a high-pressure system centered north of Bermuda, channeled the hurricane directly northward. Most experts at the time believed the storm would eventually assume a more traditional trajectory, so the forecast for New England called for cloudy skies and wind gusts, but not for hurricane conditions. Another unforeseen condition was that as the hurricane made its way up the coast, it picked up speed. Hurricanes in the northern hemisphere rotate in a counter-clockwise direction so the forward speed of the storm increases the speed of the winds on its eastern side relative to the land it passes over. At one time, that forward speed reached 70 miles per hour, the highest ever recorded for any hurricane. As the storm passed Virginia, its forward speed was still over 50 miles per hour. Shortly after 3:00 p.m. on September 21, 1938, the hurricane’s eye made landfall in Bayport and quickly traversed Long Island. Then it crossed Long Island Sound and made landfall again about 4:00 p.m. in New Haven, Connecticut. The maximum winds speed has been analyzed to have been between 120 and 125 miles per hour, what today would be classified as a class 3 hurricane. The storms forward speed propelled it into Massachusetts by 5:00 p.m. and then into Vermont by 6:00. Even more damaging than the high winds was the devastation caused by the storm surge. The effects of the Autumnal Equinox and a full moon exacerbated the surge. The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of Long Island and the Connecticut coast. New London to Cape Cod saw tides of 18 to 25 feet. The water swept hundreds of summer cottages in Rhode Island out to sea and the entire community of Napatree Point, which housed some 40 families near Watch Hill, was obliterated. The storm killed over 650 to as many as 800 people and estimates of the storm damages totaled $306 million dollars. Accounting for inflation since then, that would equate to more than $41 billion dollars in 2012. If all of this was caused by a category 3 storm, what kind of damage could a category 5 hurricane do to New England? Perhaps this conversation between Bert Myers and Josh Gibbons, two fictitious characters from my novel, could serve to illustrate. “So what do you think, Bert?” asked Josh. “I’m just a lowly mathematician. You’re the weather expert. Does it really look like we’re going to have front row seats to Armageddon?” “I don’t know, Josh. New England’s never been hit by a class five hurricane. The nearest we’ve come was the Long Island Express in 1938, and that was a class three. It decimated the coastline, flooded towns thirty miles inland, and created the Shinnecock Inlet.” “Thanks for the real estate report. Not that I don’t appreciate hearing how the storm affected property values, but how about the really juicy numbers. How many died?” “Over 700.” “And that was a class three?” Bert took another sip of his coffee. “Tornado hunters have an expression for an F-5 tornado. They call it the ‘Finger of God.’ A hurricane the size of Amanda could spin off a dozen that size. If an F-5 tornado is God’s finger, then in a few hours we’re going to get a firsthand look at His fist.”
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