Several hurricanes arrive without any warning. They slam into the coast unexpectedly, destroying homes and endangering lives. On September 21, 1938, a sudden powerful Category 3 hurricane made landfall into Long Island and southern New England. Referred to as the Great New England Hurricane, the storm was the most destructive force to hit the New England region in the 20th century.

The storm’s path

The Great New England Hurricane, also referred to as the “Long Island Express”, was born out of a tropical cyclone developed in the eastern Atlantic Ocean on September 10, near the Cape Verde Islands. Six days later, the captain of a Brazilian freighter issued a warning to the U.S. Weather Bureau [now known as the National Weather Service]. Originally, the storm was predicted to make landfall in south Florida. However, on September 19, the hurricane suddenly changed its direction and headed up north in a surprise attack.

Ignoring the warnings

Junior forecaster for the U.S. Weather Bureau Charlie Pierce warned his chief forecaster that the hurricane was headed for the Northeast. His warnings were ignored since it had been over a century since New England had been hit by a significant hurricane. Many believed it could never happen again, but Mother Nature had other plans. The hurricane was moving north at a rapid speed of more than 60 miles-per-hour [mph].

However, by the time the U.S. Weather Bureau realized the storm was more severe than expected, it was too late for a warning. In 1938, there weren’t any radars, radio buoys, or satellite imagery. Around 2:30 p.m. on September 21, the hurricane made landfall, surprising sailors and beachgoers. Surges of ocean water and waves up to 40 feet tall swallowed coastal homes. At Westhampton, 150 homes were destroyed. Winds exceeded 100 [mph]. Inland, people drowned from the floodwater. Others were killed by uprooted trees and falling debris, while others were electrocuted by powerlines.

The storm gained intensity as it passed over Connecticut and into Rhode Island. The hurricane raced across Massachusetts, flooding most of Boston. In total, 700 people were killed by the Great New England Hurricane. Nearly 9,000 homes and buildings were destroyed. It was the most disastrous storm the region faced in the 20th century. Hopefully, the U.S. Weather Bureau learned a lesson: don’t ignore warnings.