Today in History: The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Today is the 82nd anniversary of the day the “Long Island Express” came ashore on Long Island, New York.  This is the storm that my grandparents’ generation always talked about when they talked about how bad hurricanes in New England could get.

Pretty damn bad.

This storm killed between 600 and 800 people and wrecked huge swaths of New England, including many areas far from the coast in New Hampshire and Vermont.

It was bad enough that the storm surge washed a huge oil tanker up onto the shore down the street from my mother’s parents’ house in Somerset, Massachusetts.

View from Riverside Avenue, which was almost blocked by the ship coming ashore.

In some places the storm surge (with waves) was believed to be 25 to 35 feet.  The storm surge eventually put downtown Providence, Rhode Island under nearly 20 feet of water in some places.

Rhode Island suffered some of the worst damage, along with the majority of deaths and injuries.
An old record broken – high water mark for the 1815 hurricane shown with the new mark from the 1938 hurricane.

The unnamed hurricane (they didn’t name them in those days) managed to get all the way up to Category 5 before coming ashore as a Category 3.  It was called the “Long Island Express” because it moved so fast – nearly 50 mph.  Thus it took surprisingly little time to get from the coast of the Carolinas to New York and New England.  And the forward speed added to the strength of the winds.  The Blue Hills weather observatory in Massachusetts recorded one gust at 186 mph.

My father’s parents had a farm in Somerset.  Near their driveway was a stump from an elm tree that was knocked down during this hurricane.  The tree was over 150 years old and the stump it left behind was almost the size of my dad’s VW Beetle.

And most people had no idea it was coming.  To me, that is the scariest part of all of this.


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