Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Long Island Express - The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Saltaire, Long Island.
Source: Frank Markus,
We are three-quarters through the peak month of hurricane season and so far the tropics have beenfairly quiet.  Seventy-five years ago today, however, a destructive hurricane slammed into Long Island and southern New England, causing 700 deaths and $620 million in damage (1938 dollars equivalent to $41 billion in 2010).

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, also dubbed the Long Island Express because of its high forward speed, originated off the Cape Verde Islands on September 9. It traveled across the Atlantic the next 11 days, becoming a hurricane on September 16. It turned north about 400 miles east of Jacksonville, FL on September 20, It would stay on that due north track, along the 72.5° meridian, until it reached southern Vermont on September 21. The northerly storm track was forced by a cold front that moved off the east coast on September 20.

Surface map on September 20, 1938. Blue line signifies the approximate position of the cold front
Estimated track of the hurricane on September 21, 1938, with hourly positions in local standard time and central pressure in millibars. Source:  Jarvinen, B. R., 2006: Storm Tides in 12 Twelve Tropical Cyclones (including Four Intense New England Hurricanes

Surface map for 2:00 p.m. September 21, 1938. The hurricane made landfall sometime between 2:15 and 2:45 p.m.
Source: Geological Impact of the 1938 Hurricane
One of the remarkable aspects to this storm was its forward speed. At landfall this Category 3 hurricane was moving at a forward speed of 47 mph. Sustained winds were 109 mph at Fishers Island, NY. Gusts peaked at 186 mph at the Blue Hill Observatory in Massachusetts. It produced a storm surge from 14 to 17 feet. Twelve new inlets formed from the storm from Fire Island to East Hampton from the wind and wave action, but most filled up with debris and tons of sand. The most notable was Shinnecock Inlet because it remained open and still exists today.

This hurricane occurred well before the age of satellites, and so monitoring of tropical systems could only be done through ship reports and land-based weather observations. Exact positions on this storm could only be estimated depending on the number of ship reports. In this case the estimates were further hindered by the fact that the Jacksonville, FL Weather Bureau office had understandably told mariner's to stay in port, so there were few reports to work with. This was also before tropical storms were named.

The National Weather Service Office in New York City has a great web site on this storm. It includes meteorological analysis and statistics, photos, news clippings, and even some video of film taken during the storm. Check out The Great New England Hurricane of 1938.


  1. I've been writing up some historical events over for posting on a climate blog. This storm make s a great segue to discuss all the other extreme weather happening then.