With the technology of today, hurricanes are tracked from the moment they develop till they make landfall or dissipate at sea. They are constantly monitored by satellites, airplanes, buoys and dozens of meteorologists. But in 1938 meteorologists did not have these fancy gadgets. They had to rely on ships to report conditions or storms they encountered. Relying on ships to report conditions works well in busy shipping lanes, but if those lanes are suddenly empty due to a storm warning, meteorologists are left blind. This can allow a Category 5 hurricane to sneak up the eastern coast and surprise New England.
The Great Hurricane of 1938 formed off the African coast on September 9th. From there it drifted West North-West and was first reported to the U.S. by a merchant ship three hundred miles north of Puerto Rico on the 18th. The next day it was observed from the Bahamas and forecasters predicted it was headed for Florida. Having misjudged a hurricane years before, meteorologists in Florida were quick to issue a Hurricane Warning and warned residents to standby for evacuations. But the storm never came. Instead, it turned north on the 20th sparing Florida. The meteorologists in Florida passed a warning up the coast to be on the lookout for strong winds, storms and hurricane conditions.
Just out of sight from the mainland the hurricane quickened its pace. Since so many ships heeded the storm warnings and made for port, meteorologists were unaware of this change in speed. New England meteorologists were confident any hurricane headed their way would lose its power in the cooler northern waters and dissipate. After all there had only been two hurricanes to hit New England in the last three hundred years. Despite this confidence, forecasters did issue an advisory for gale force winds but made no mention of a tropical storm or hurricane.
Meanwhile the hurricane was now sprinting towards New York at over sixty miles per hour, making the seven hundred mile journey in only twelve hours. Despite the approaching destruction, the morning of the 21st was a beautiful, bright and sunny day. Winds were light and people flocked to the beaches, as fishing boats set to sea. By noon winds were ripping across New Jersey and Long Island at sixty plus miles per hour and people and ships were fleeing to safety. Around 2:30 pm the hurricane made landfall at Bellport on Long Island as a Category 3 hurricane. It continued inland and made a second landfall about an hour later in mid Connecticut before dissipating over Ontario a couple days later.
The suddenness and lack of warning from meteorologists led to a devastating aftermath. Over 680 people were killed another 1700 injured. The storm also destroyed or damaged 57,000 homes and caused approximately $5 billion dollars’ worth of damage (in today’s dollars). It still remains the most devastating hurricane to hit New England.