Words on Weather & Climate by Craig James, September 30, 2010

The Long Island Express 


Meteorologist Craig James, new Squire columnist

In last week’s article I wrote about the extreme weather that occurred in 1888, 1896 and 1899. This week I want to take a look at the incredible hurricane that devastated New England on September 21, 1938. This is another amazing weather event most people have never heard about.

Back in 1938, there was no weather radar, no satellites and no ocean buoys. Ocean weather observations came from ship reports and occasionally an aircraft. The U.S. Weather Bureau, now called the National Weather Service, knew that a storm had formed in early September just off the African coast. The storm had probably reached category five status as it passed north of the Bahamas on the 19th.

Charlie Pierce, a young research forecaster for the Weather Bureau, concluded that the storm would not curve out to sea and miss the United States, as most storms in this area do, but would instead track due north. But as so often happens in many organizations, he was overruled by more senior meteorologists and the official forecast called for nothing more than cloudy skies and gusty conditions in New England.

Because the official forecast contained no 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 re-curving out to sea, the storm moved due north from off the coast of Virginia and accelerated in forward speed to 70 mph. In the history of hurricanes, this is the fastest known forward speed recorded. Because of its speed of movement, the storm became known as the “Long Island Express.”

As residents of Long Island and southern New England looked off to the south, what they thought was a bank of fog moving north actually turned out to be the storm surge, or wall of water, over 15 feet high with waves of over 30 feet on top of the surge. Millions of tons of sea water swept 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.

The storm created a new inlet separating the southeastern part of Long Island from the main part of the island. In just a short amount of time, the city of Providence, Rhode Island was under 20 feet of water.

Providence also suffered sustained winds of 100 mph with gusts to 125 mph.

At the Blue Hill Observatory, south of Boston, a sustained wind speed of 121 mph was observed with a peak gust to 186 mph. This is the strongest wind speed ever recorded at sea level so far north.

The damage summary is phenomenal. There were 700 deaths plus 708 people injured; 4,500 homes, cottages and farms were destroyed with 15,000 damaged. There were 26,000 destroyed automobiles and 20,000 miles of electrical power and telephone lines downed; 1,700 livestock and up to 750,000 chickens were killed. Many fishing villages were destroyed as well as half the entire apple crop in the area. Untold millions of trees were destroyed. Total damage in today’s values would likely be over $20 billion.

Could a storm like this happen again? Absolutely. Hurricane experts believe the cities of Miami, New Orleans and New York City are quite vulnerable to a storm of this magnitude. It is, unfortunately, a question of when, not if. Even with our modern system of advanced warnings, it would likely be the largest natural disaster in this country’s history. 

Craig James has been retired since July 1, 2008, after 40 years of broadcasting television weather. He was chief meteorologist at WZZM-TV for 12 years and chief meteorologist at WOOD-TV for 24 years. He is a graduate of Penn State University, where he received a Centennial Fellowship Award. He was also honored as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

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