Devastating 1938 Hurricane Not Forgotten

Devastating 1938 Hurricane Not Forgotten

Here in New England, we have experienced our share of hurricanes, but it is the Great Hurricane of 1938 that is still remembered today for its devastation and destruction.

When I was 4 years old my family moved to a new house in the town where I grew up in the Boston area. On a dead-end road and up a small hill, the property was surrounded by woods of mostly oaks, hickory, wild dogwood and beech.

One distinctive feature of the woods was several oak trees about 12 to 18 inches in diameter that were leaning over and close to the ground. They were so close to the ground I was able to walk right up the trunk. The trees were still alive because the roots had not been pulled from the ground and the branches served as grab handles as I walked up the trunk to the upper end of the tree.

We moved to that house in 1959, 21 years after the Great Hurricane of 1938. My dad pointed out that our “walking trees” were all leaning in the same direction due to the sweeping arc of high winds from the ferocious hurricane. When the hurricane hit, the trees were smaller, allowing the saplings to bend but not break. The trees remained alive and growing to be enjoyed by an inquisitive boy 20-plus years later.

Friday is the 80th anniversary of the Great Hurricane of 1938. It had devastating impacts on The Last Green Valley and New England. I did some research about the hurricane of ’38 and share it with you today in remembrance of that horrible day eight decades ago.

I found excellent information on the hurricane from a reliable source — the National Weather Service station in Boston. Their website about the hurricane can be found at: https://www.weather.gov/box/1938hurricane

The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was one of the most destructive and powerful storms ever to strike Southern New England. This system developed in the far Eastern Atlantic, near the Cape Verde Islands on Sept. 4, journeyed across the Atlantic and up the Eastern Seaboard before crashing ashore Sept. 21 at Suffolk County, Long Island and then into Milford. Ten miles east of Milford, in New Haven, the eye of the hurricane was seen. Unlike most storms, this hurricane did not weaken on its way toward Southern New England, due to its rapid forward speed and its track. This kept the center of the storm over the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

Most of Southern New England experienced hurricane force winds with the strongest gusts reaching 186 mph at the Blue Hill Observatory with sustained winds of 121 mph. Extensive damage occurred to roofs, trees and crops. Widespread power outages occurred, which in some areas lasted several weeks. In Connecticut, downed power lines resulted in catastrophic fires in sections of New London and Mystic.

The center made landfall at the time of astronomical high tide, moving north at 50 mph. The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25-foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. Downtown Providence was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet. Sections of Falmouth and New Bedford, Mass., were submerged under as much as 8 feet of water. All three locations had very rapid tide increases within 1.5 hours of the highest water mark.

Rainfall from this hurricane and a frontal system that hit the area several days before the hurricane resulted in severe river flooding across sections of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The combined effects from the frontal system and the hurricane produced rainfall of 10 to 17 inches across most of the Connecticut River Valley, resulting in some of the worst flooding ever recorded in this area. Roadways were washed away along with sections of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford railroad lines.

The Connecticut River in Hartford reached a level of 35.4 feet, which was 19.4 feet above flood stage. Further upstream, near Springfield, the river rose 6 to 10 feet above flood stage, causing significant damage. A total of 8,900 homes, cottages and buildings were destroyed, and more than 15,000 were damaged by the hurricane. The marine community was devastated. More than 2,600 boats were destroyed and more than 3,300 were damaged. A total of 2,605 fishing fleet boats were destroyed, with 3,369 damaged. The hurricane was responsible for 564 deaths and at least 1,700 injuries in Southern New England. This information is from “Southern New England Tropical Storms and Hurricanes, A Ninety-eight Year Summary 1909-1997″ by David R. Vallee and Michael R. Dion, National Weather Service, Boston/Taunton, MA.

There are several books on the Great Hurricane of 1938 including “The Hurricane of 1938,” by Aram Goudsouzian, and “The Great Hurricane of 1938,” by Cherie Burns.

One of the more interesting books about the impact the hurricane had on New England forests is “Thirty-eight: The Hurricane That Transformed New England,” by Stephen Long.

Hurricane season is here, and the Great Hurricane of 1938 continues to be the yardstick by which all hurricanes since are measured in this region. We now give hurricanes names like Sandy and Irene, but the one many folks around here still talk about is just a number – 1938. Let’s hope we never have to experience such a devastating storm again.

Note: This column was suggested by Priscilla Paul. She enjoys the outdoors, the flora and fauna in our region, as well as our varied New England weather.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger for The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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