This week New England is being inundated with retrospectives on the Hurricane of 1938. We have everything from a “Special Limited Edition” Weather Map Prepared by Bob Copeland, a retired Boston TV meteorologist who started an art studio in New Hampshire to a day long commemorative event hosted by the Blue Hill Observatory and featuring the Director of the National Weather Service, Dr. Louis Uccillini, National Hurricane Center Director, Dr. Rick Knabb, and MIT Professor Dr. Kerry Emanuel.
The main NH TV station hosted three programs around the state. I have no idea what else Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are doing, but I’m sure it’s substantial.
In brief, the storm’s damage summary from Boston NWS Office is:
Public Impact: Deaths: 564 Injured: > 1,700
Boating Impact: Destroyed: 2,600 Damaged: 3,300
Homes/Buildings Destroyed: 8,900 Damaged: > 15,000
If the storm hit now, damage could be $45 billion. If it followed Sandy’s track, the damaged area would be different, but the storm surge and total damage much worse.
There’s so much available about the hurricane that writing yet another essay would be a waste of my time. Instead, I want to talk about weather before and after 1938, and the best source for lore from that time is David Ludlum’s The New England Weather Book. No, my copy isn’t for sale. The block quotes below are from Ludlum, the rest of the text is from several sources.
The decade or so before 1938 certainly qualifies as a period of extreme weather, remind your local warmists about it. While the plains were sweltering through the dust bowl, I presume a blocking pattern brought a persistent storm track through New England because we got more than our share of water. Let’s start in 1927.
“The flood of November 3, 1927, was the greatest disaster in the history of our beautiful state,” declared Gov. John E. Weeks of Vermont. These words were from the heart: the hills and valleys of the land if his birth lay in a state of ruin and his people were suffering a state of mental shock at the magnitude of their losses. Week’s close associate, Lt. Gov. S Hollister Jackson, perished in a flood stream raging down an erstwhile highway within sight of his home and at least eighty-three other Vermont residents met similar fates that afternoon and night.
The storm began as a weak low pressure trough moving in from the west. However, it entrained a tropical stream of moist air brought up by a weak tropical storm that had passed by the coast. This is a setup that often brings some of our wettest rain storms. As the moist air is forced upward by the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Berkshires in western Massachusetts and then over a dome of cold, dense Canadian air, the tropical air cools, and tremendous amounts of rain, by New England standards, can fall. If the pattern persists for a day or two, it becomes a disaster. A similar feed from the Gulf of Mexico is what brought all the recent rain to the Boulder, Colorado, area. The following description could be readily adapted to describe the Colorado event.
During the late morning and afternoon hours of November 3, all Vermont rainfall records were broken – both for hourly intensity and for single-storm totals – as the moisture of the oceanic airstream was wrung from the clouds and dropped over the countryside. … The greatest amount of rain was measured at Somerset, an elevation of 2,096 feet, where the total fall was 9.65 inches and amounts up to 15.00 inches may have fallen on the 4,000 foot mountains.
Masses of water swept down hillsides where no water had flowed before. When brooks, streams, and rivers were filled to capacity the water spread over the countryside, submerging venerable landmarks and setting new high water marks. Bridges collapsed, highways were washed out, railroad tracks were undermined, and an undetermined number of buildings were torn from their foundations and swept downstream, some carrying hapless victims to a watery grave. In all Vermont lost eight-four residents and suffered at least $25 million in property losses. It was the greatest catastrophe from a natural cause in the state’s history.
The dust bowl years were hot and dry in the plains, but there was cold weather too. December 1933 brought New England’s coldest temperature, -50°F (-46°C), which was recently tied, if not eclipsed a few years ago. February 1934 brought the coldest month ever recorded in the New England and maybe the entire northeast:
Two years later New England was cold, but the Dakotas set all-time daily record lows and month-long lows, and then set all-time record highs in July.
As spring came to New England, two rainstorms associated with a trough that stretched from polar regions to the Gulf of Mexico brought heavy rain to the snow-covered region. The peak rainfall was in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Pinkham Notch, next to Mount Washington, received 6.46″ on the 12th from the first storm, and 10.95″ on the 18th and 19th from the second storm. The 33 inches of snow cover at Pinkham Notch held another eight inches of water, so there was some 25 inches of water available, and more at higher elevations. Even Massachusetts and Connecticut had some 10 inches to contribute. The result was called the “All New England Flood of 1936.”
The floods were especially severe throughout the Merrimack Valley, where all previous records were exceeded except in the northern reaches. The severest washout occurred in Hooksett, NH [a dozen miles south of Concord] where water 18 to 20 feet deep flowed through the main street. The Amoskeag Mills [another dozen miles south in Manchester] were severely damaged (a flood marker there indicates that the crest of the 1936 flood was 13.5 feet higher than in any previous flood. The cities of Lawrence, Haverhill, and Lowell suffered great damage from the total innundation of mills and factories; the water at Lowell was 6.4 feet higher that previously recorded.
Record crests were reached in the Connecticut River basin, from the vicinity of Fifteen Mile Falls in the north through the remainder of the valley southward; only in the vicinity of White River Junction was the peak less than 1927….
The Waters at Hartford rose to a stage 8.6 feet higher than any previous flood level recorded since the settlement of the area threee hundred years before. A large part of the downtown commercial area was flooded when Connecticut River waters backed up into North Branch Park River, a small stream flowing near the capitol and railroad station.
As a result of timely warnings, loss of life was small, but property damage was estimated to exceed $100 million, making the Flood of 1936 the costliest New England weather experienced until the New England Hurricane and Flood of September, 1938, repeated the magnitude of the flood losses and added much wind damage as well.
Hurricanes approaching New England usually accelerate and curve strongly to the east. A trough accelerated and guided the Hurricane of 1938 due northward at 60 mph. Not only did the storm not have time to begin weakening over cold northeast waters, the forward speed added significantly to the wind to the east of the center.
The storm came ashore on Long Island, crossed the sound, and hit the mainland west of New Haven. It continued up the Connecticut River valley into Vermont, then across the Green Mountains to Burlington.
Providence, Rhode Island, experienced the worst storm surge with water sweeping into Naragansett Bay with high tide 17 feet above normal. Water depth in Providence was nearly two feet deeper then the previous record from 1815.
Before the hurricane struck, several days of rain had left saturated ground throughout New England. This, and the storm’s fast motion, allowed the wind impact to be much greater inland than is typical for a hurricane. Some two billion board feet of timber blew down and took years to salvage. In Franconia Notch State Park, a tall tree named the Sentinel Pine blew down. Years before the storm, my mother and her sisters could barely ring the tree while the three held hands. The tree was put to good use – it is the support for a pedestrian covered bridge across a river. That, and the many trees that date back to 1939 are the most visible remnants of the storm.
The Hurricane of 1938 was the first storm of a period of increased tropical storm activity. In 1944 a hurricane named The Great Atlantic Hurricane brushed New Jersey, causing great damage to barrier islands, and then hit Long Island, Rhode Island, and Cape Cod.
The Worcester tornado of 1953 left devastation along a 46 mile track in Massachusetts from Worcester to in central and eastern Massachusetts. Retroactively classified as F-4, some people have made a good case it was F-5. Scientifically it’s interesting because it was the first storm that showed tropospheric air could be forced well into the stratosphere. It and two lesser tornadoes left 94 deaths and $53 million in damage. While New England gets a half a dozen tornadoes every year, nothing like the 1953 storm has recurred.
In 1954, Hurricane Carol hit just east of the 1938 storm and traveled in a straighter line up to the northern tip of New Hampshire and on into Quebec. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Edna came through Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. A month later Hurricane Hazel came through New York state bringing damage to Vermont.
The next year Hurricane Connie tracked well west of new England, but it brought rain and floods. A week later, Hurricane Diane brushed by southern New England and bringing up to twenty inches of rain on saturated ground and produced more flooding.
The last storm of that active period was Donna in 1960. It tracked from about New Haven to northern Maine.
During this period of extreme weather, a wave of “climate adaptation” swept through the area. After the storm surges of 1938 and 1954, Providence, Rhode Island; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Stamford, Connecticut designed and built storm surge barriers that have paid for themselves several times. Flood control dams were designed and built to reduce the damage threshold of future extreme rain. Some of the dams in New Hampshire offer major benefits to Massachusetts, and the “The Merrimack River Valley Flood Control Commission” was formed to help assess and collect money from Massachusetts to offset the loss of property tax revenue.
While the Hurricane of 1938 certainly deserves all the retrospective attention it has received this week, it occurred in the middle of a long period of extreme weather. 1927 to 1960 is 34 years. In the 34 years since 1980, New England has been affected by many tropical systems, but none extremely bad. An F-4 tornado in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and an EF-4 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, were narrower and had much shorter tracks than the 1953 tornado. Likewise, while we have had some significant floods, especially the Vermont flooding from the remnants of hurricane Irene in 2011, the All New England Flood of 1936 remains the benchmark.
NOAA: Flood of March 1936
Photos and audio lecture about the Hurricane of 1938
Still more, a good article from climate.gov A Hurricane in New England?
A photo from a slide show of storm barriers includes the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier that protects Providence, Rhode Island.