Hurricane season

Ted Shapiro, Special to The County
9 years ago

Over the years, New England has certainly had its share of “run-ins” with tropical tempests, and we only have to go back two years here in The County, when Arthur came calling over the Fourth of July weekend.

But September is the peak of the hurricane season. And it was in September that New England’s deadliest hurricane occurred, specifically, Sept 21st, 1938. Back then, hurricanes were not given names as they are now, but this storm was moving so quickly that it actually has been given a nickname, “The Long Island Express”, since the forward speed of the storm was over 60 mph on its approach to the coastline!

The hurricane had been expected to move out to sea, once it attained the latitude of Cape Hatteras, but it was instead captured by two weather systems which literally sling-shotted it right toward Long Island, where coastal residents thought they saw an approaching fog bank, but which turned out instead to be an enormous storm surge (a vertical rise in the ocean). This surge inundated coastal communities and decimated coastal structures, both on Long Island and in coastal southern New England. In terms of wind, Providence, Rhode Island, had sustained winds of 100 mph with gusts to 125 mph, and the storm surge caused much flooding there.

The Hurricane of ’38 killed more people than any New England hurricane before or since, more than 600. It holds the record for the highest wind gust ever measured at the famed Blue Hill Observatory near Boston, an unbelievable 186 mph!

Hurricane tracking was a different kettle of fish in the late 1930’s, because guess what we didn’t  have in 1938? Satellites. Thus storms at sea could only be tracked through ship reports, or if they passed close to land, like the islands of the Caribbean. So when the storm veered north and accelerated toward Long Island and New England, it was a complete surprise.


A junior forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau, Charles Pierce, having pored over the charts, felt that the storm would indeed take the deadly track that it did, but he is said to have been overruled by his superiors who essentially told him, “oh hurricanes never do that“.

So with an ongoing forecast of only a windswept rain, people went about their day, while this vicious hurricane raced from off the coast of North Carolina at about 9 a.m., into eastern Long Island by 3 p.m., and on into Connecticut less than an hour later. Again, keep in mind, this was a regular school and work day! Late in the afternoon, people saw that it was obviously something more than just a “windswept rain”, and they went out into the teeth of it to try to get home.

By the way, the hurricane’s impacts were felt far inland as well, devastating forests, with an estimated two billion trees knocked down in New England and New York.

If you want to learn more about the Long Island Express, here is an excellent site: The definitive book, for a true hour-by-hour account, is Roger K. Brickner’s “The Long Island Express: Tracking the Hurricane of 1938”.

Finally, if you want to track tropical systems on your own, here is the website of The National Hurricane Center:

Ted Shapiro holds the Broadcast Seal of Approval from both the American Meteorological Society and the National Weather Association. An Alexandria, Va. native, he has been chief meteorologist at WAGM-TV since 2006. Email him at