Introduction to 1938
The “Long Island Express” was first detected over the tropical Atlantic on September 13, although it may have formed a few days earlier. Moving generally west-northwestward, it passed to the north of Puerto Rico on the 18th and 19th, likely as a category 5 hurricane. It turned northward on September 20 and by the morning of the 21st it was 100 to 150 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. At that point, the hurricane accelerated to a forward motion of 60 to 70 mph, making landfall over Long Island and Connecticut that afternoon as a Category 3 hurricane. The storm became extratropical after landfall and dissipated over southeastern Canada on September 22.
Blue Hill Observatory, Massachusetts measured sustained winds of 121 mph with gusts to 183 mph (likely influenced by terrain). A U.S. Coast Guard station on Long Island measured a minimum pressure of 27.94 in. Storm surges of 10 to 12 ft inundated portions of the coast from Long Island and Connecticut eastward to southeastern Massachusetts, with the most notable surges in Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay. Heavy rains before and during the hurricane produced river flooding, most notably along the Connecticut River.
This hurricane struck with little warning and was responsible for 600 deaths and $308 million in damage in the United States.
Why was 1938 so disastrous?
In the Fall of 1938 as in previous Septembers, owners seized the chance to drive down to the shore to put up the shutters for winter and sneak in a final sail or day at the beach. For those who listened to the radio – the news was filled with ominous reports of Neville Chamberlain and Hitler. A few may have heard the mild warning issued by the weather bureau: “ Rain, heavy at times”
No one suspected the coming disaster. The hurricane accelerated to a forward motion of 60 to 70 mph, making landfall over Long Island and Connecticut that afternoon as a Category 3 hurricane. The storm became extratropical after landfall, intensifying and growing in size. By noon on the 21st, those on the shores of Westport Harbor and Horseneck were only beginning to notice the wind velocity and were buckling down for just another average New England storm. By 5pm that same day, Westporters were fighting to save their property and their lives.
What was the impact?
In Westport, 22 people perished and two significant communities, Horseneck and Westport Harbor, faced total and partial destruction. Approximately 600 people died in the storm in New England. In total, 4,500 cottages, farms, and other homes were reported destroyed. An additional 25,000 homes were damaged. Other damages included 26,000 automobiles destroyed, and 20,000 electrical poles toppled. The hurricane also devastated the forests of New England, knocking down an estimated 200,000 trees.
What can we learn?
Beyond the cost and statistics, are the personal experiences of many Westporters. Today we can learn from their observations and accounts, particularly the effects of STORM SURGE for we all know that it is not if but when the next hurricane comes to our coastline.