September 20 - 1938: The 'wind that shook the world' kills 700

Nobody saw it coming, and Hitler blew it off the front page
This chart shows the path of every hurricane to hit New England since 1900. The worst one, the Great Storm of 1938, was not known of until minutes before it hit the south shore of Long Island and swept over New England from New Haven to Cape Cod.

1938: The surprise hurricane

New England's worst and America's fifth worst

On this day in 1938, I was looking out the front window of my parent's home on Route 6 in Woodbury, Conn. as one by one the eight giant elm trees in front of our yard were blown over like twigs by the worst hurricane New England ever experienced.

And my home was 22 miles from the nearest salt water in Long Island Sound.

New England has had 24 hurricanes and 14 tropical storms since 1900, but this one was the worst.

Except for a junior forecaster in the U.S. Weather Bureau who predicted the storm but was overruled by the chief forecaster, the Weather Bureau experts and the general public never saw it coming.

Later that day, the greatest weather disaster ever to hit Long Island and New England struck in the form of a category 3 hurricane. Long Island, New York and New England were changed forever by the "Long Island Express."

Case studies have shown that the next time a storm like the Long Island Express roars through, it might be the greatest disaster in U.S. history.

Nobody saw it coming, and Hitler blew it off the front page

Cape Cod almost "got it" in the 1938 Hurricane

The hurricane of 1938 has been called, "the wind that shook the world". In 1938 the U.S. Weather Bureau wasn't what it is today . Meteorologists depended on the merchant ships and aircraft to forecast the weather. At 2:15 on Wednesday, September 21 1938 a Long Island fisherman saw what he thought was a huge fog bank, then, he realized it wasn't fog. It was a churning wall of water 50 feet high bearing down on the New England coast and thirteen million unsuspecting people, with 200 miles per hour winds. The eye of the hurricane came at 60 mph, the velocity of a tornado. It hit the Connecticut shore a little after 3p.m. and flooded downtown Providence and New Bedford.

Future Oracle owner and reporter on the job

Barns sixty miles inland were white with salt spray the next morning. 700 died and 100,000 were homeless in an era when the population was a quarter of what it is today. Communications and roads to Cape Cod were cut off, but an enterprising young Orleans native and reporter, Mary Smith, at the Providence Journal contacted the French Cable Co. in Brest, France to find out what the conditions were in her hometown. A few years later she and her husband Ed started The Oracle newspaper.

The great New England hurricane of 1938 struck at high tide, which coincided with the highest astronomical tide of the year, pushing a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet across the south coast and up the many bays and inlets including Narragansett and Buzzards Bays. Winds of over 120 mph blew across the coastal regions. The Blue Hill observatory, in Milton MA, recorded a sustained 5-minute wind of 121 mph and a peak gust to 186 mph.

Parts of interior Connecticut and Massachusetts not only bore the brunt of high winds, but also experienced severe river flooding as rain from the hurricane combined with heavy rains earlier that week to produce rainfall totals of up to 17 inches. This resulted in some of the worst river flooding ever experienced in parts of Connecticut and Massachusetts.

This powerful storm caused 564 deaths and over 1,700 injuries. Nearly 9,000 homes and businesses were destroyed with over 15,000 damaged. The boating community was equally devastated with 2,600 boats destroyed and 3,300 damaged.

On right; WHOI as the wave hit Cape Cod, and houses floated through the Cape Cod Canal.

Those who survived the hurricane have extraordinary stories to tell. Everett S. Allen titles one such book of vignettes "A Wind To Shake The World, The Story of the 1938 Hurricane".

The author, a Vineyarder who began his first newspaper job as waterfront reporter at the New Bedford Standard-Times on the day the hurricane hit, captures the essence of shock and despair and at times, humor and irony in the many stories from the three New England states that suffered this freak of nature. The book is available at your public library or be sure to check the Internet used-book sites for this gem of a book. In the preface he writes:

"For two years, I have forced myself -- and countless others -- to see again the sick color of sky and sea on that day, to hear the scream of the wind, which was everywhere.

"To confront anew the shocking, instant obliteration of what had always been assumed permanent and mile upon mile of man's work reduced to rubble.

"And I have forced myself and others to see man himself, face down and weaving like weed in the roiling shallows or open-mouthed and still, half-buried in the damp sand. I have made people weep by asking them to remember what for many of them remains their most terrible day."

"The Long Island Express" kills 700

September 10th, 1938 is the first day the weather disturbance was tracked as a tropical storm. The winds began to intensify to hurricane level on September 15th and within four more days, grew to a category 5 - the highest and most intense and deadly level.

One wonders if we should be thankful that on the day of landfall the storm was at category 4, and as it hit land was reducing to category 3? The death of this storm occurred on the 22nd of September after leaving in its wake close to 700 deaths from the tri-state area and beyond.

Diana Rosenberg, a well-known astrologer from New York, said that her family summer home on Long Island was destroyed and some of their documents were blown hundreds of miles north to the state of New Hampshire.

Then Germany invaded Czechoslovakia

Please note that many of our worst storms have companion events in the day-to-day world. On Sept. 21, 1938, Adolph Hitler gained his first foothold in the Sudentenland.

In addition to the extreme loss of life, the abundant stately elm trees and white church spires, the pillars of many New England communities fell and while the steeples could be replaced, the trees never returned to their original splendor.

A disease  - the Dutch Elm disease - killed off the remaining elms.

The 1938 hurricane is the most intense tropical cyclone to strike the United States Atlantic coastline north of North Carolina. Along the Atlantic coast of the United States (north of Florida) - only Hurricanes Hugo (1989) and Hazel (1954) - were more intense at landfall. Every record for wind speed, tidal surge, and barometric pressure in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island - can be traced to this single event.

Overall, a six-state area experienced economic difficulties for many years due to the record flooding and many mill towns in New England were inundated.

When the "big one" hit Cape Cod, kills 7 people in Bourne

Paul Gately in the Bourne Courier did a bang-up report on the storm:

The catastrophic Hurricane of 1938 hit Bourne on the afternoon of Sept. 21, killing seven townspeople.

Selectmen in their report said the storm “tore through an unprepared community; the angry sea irritated by ceaseless winds, arose like one huge wave and approached helpless nearby villages.”

Buzzards Bay shopkeepers were forced to evacuate their businesses due to rising water, and townspeople boarded themselves up in their homes. See photos of the '38 'cane here.


CapeCodToday.com welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on CapeCodToday.com.