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Hurricanes: Science and Society
1938- The Great New England Hurricane

Basic Statistics

Maximum wind speed
Minimum pressure
September 10-22, 1938
260 km/hr (160 mph)
938 mb
306 Million U.S.
Long Island, NY
New Haven, CT

The Great Hurricane of 1938 was the first major hurricane to strike New England since 1869. The system developed off the Cape Verde Islands around September 4, 1938. By 20 September, it was east of the Bahamas and had reached Category 5 status. At this point, the hurricane turned northward. Forecasters originally believed that the storm would recurve out into the Atlantic. However, the hurricane did not veer out into the ocean, and instead, its rapid, forward movement and a track over the warm Gulf Stream Current allowed it to travel far north. By the morning of 21 September, the hurricane was 160 to 240 km (100 to 150 mi) east of Cape Hatteras, NC. At that point, the hurricane accelerated to a forward motion of 96 to 112 km/h (60 to 70 mph) and made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane over Long Island, NY at 2:30 pm. The hurricane traveled across Providence, RI and Boston, MA by early evening on 21 September, and continued its northern track into New Hampshire, Vermont, and finally into Canada, while still moving at an unusually high speed.

With official forecasts only predicted overcast conditions, Southern New England residents were very much unaware of the approaching storm. Moreover, at the time of hurricane landfall, the tide was astronomically high due to the Autumnal Equinox (one of two times in the year when the sun is directly vertical to the equator, causing significant tides). As a result, an extremely destructive storm surge of 4.3-7.6 m (14-25 ft) was unleashed across areas of Connecticut through Cape Cod, MA. Four days prior to the arrival of the hurricane, a frontal system had also passed through the region, producing 432 mm (17 in) of rain. This, combined with the greater than 254 mm (10 in) of rainfall that occurred in some areas during the hurricane, intensified the effects of flooding throughout Southern New England.

Over 600 fatalities were the result of this hurricane, making it the deadliest hurricane in New England history. Over 8,900 homes, cottages, and farms were damaged or destroyed. The Southern New England marine community was devastated as entire fleets were lost and over 2,600 boats were destroyed with another 3,400 damaged. Overall, an estimated $306 million (1938 USD; $4.7 billion 2010 USD) of damage was caused.

Fast Facts:

  • Traveling 960 km (600 mi) in approximately 12 hours time, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 exhibited the fastest forward speed (upwards of 96 km/h [60mph]) ever recorded in hurricane history. Since the hurricane moved at a speed similar to that of a train, the hurricane was coined “The Long Island Express”.
  • The incredible forward speed of the storm caused wind speeds on the eastern (right) side of the hurricane to be extremely strong. Sustained hurricane-force winds occurred throughout much of Southern New England, with the strongest winds recorded at the Blue Hill Observatory (sustained winds of 194 km/h [121mph], peak guests of 298 km/h [186mph]). Power lines knocked down by the hurricane’s strong winds caused catastrophic fires in areas of New London and Mystic, CT.
  • Entire beach communities on the coast of Rhode Island were wiped out by the hurricane. The only structures lying directly on the coast that endured the storm were the immense, stone mansions in Newport, RI, surviving because most are located on a Cliff Walk high above the water.
  • It is said that the Hurricane of 1938 received little press due to the attempted appeasement of Adolf Hitler by Neville Chamberlain at the time. Hitler was forcing an attack on Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain tried to reason with him. However, Chamberlain’s reasoning failed, and Hitler went onto annex all of Czechoslovakia. The failed appeasement was just years before World War II started.


Hurricanes their Nature and Impact on Society. Robert A. Pielke Jr. and Robert A. Pielke Sr. Pgs. 22, 199, 200, 201

Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Other Tropical Cyclones. Published by World Book
Pgs 28, 29

The National Hurricane Center, Hurricane History Page:

The State University of New York: Suffolk County Community College. The Long Island Express:

The National Weather Service, Boston, MA Office: The Great New England Hurricane of 1938:

Wikipedia: The New England Hurricane of 1938:

PBS, American Experience- The Hurricane of ’38:

Spiegel Online International,1518,646481,00.html