The Great New England Hurricane of 1938

Photo of Battery Park (Manhattan, NY) during 1938 storm (courtesy National Weather Service)

Paul Dorian


On September 21, 1938, one of the most destructive and powerful hurricanes in recorded history struck Long Island and Southern New England. Little media attention was given to the powerful hurricane while it was out at sea as Europe was on the brink of war and was the overriding story of the time. There was no advanced meteorological technology such as radar or satellite imagery to warn of the storm’s approach.

This storm has taken on a few names over the years including “The Great New England Hurricane of 1938″, “The Long Island Express”, and the “Yankee Clipper”. It was the first “major” hurricane to strike New England since the year 1869. In the long period after this storm, New England was directly hit by a hurricane on an average of once every 6.7 years until 1991 – and there have been none since.

9 AM surface weather map of 1938 hurricane on September 21st; courtesy NOAA/NWS central library data imaging project

Genesis of the great storm

The storm began on September 9th near the Cape Verde Islands in the eastern Atlantic Ocean. About a week later, the captain of a Brazilian freighter sighted the storm near Puerto Rico and radioed a warning to the US Weather Bureau and it was expected that the storm would make landfall in south Florida where preparations frantically began. By September 19th, however, the storm suddenly changed direction and began moving north, parallel to the eastern seaboard. It had been many decades since New England had been hit by a substantial hurricane and few believed it could happen again. The storm picked up tremendous speed as it moved to the north following a track over the warm Gulf waters.

Track data courtesy of the National Hurricane Center: Hurricane Research Division: Re-analysis Project

Devastation arrives on September 21st

By the time the fast-moving storm approached Long Island, it was simply too late for a warning. In the middle of the afternoon on September 21st, the powerful category 3 hurricane (previously a category 5) made landfall along the south shore of Long Island right around high tide when there was nearly a new moon (highest astronomical tide of the year). To make matters worse, this part of the country had just been through a long rainy period which saturated grounds before the arrival of this great storm. Waves as high as 40+ feet swallowed up coastal homes and homes that survived the storm surge succumbed to the damaging winds that reached 111-129 mph (lower to the west and higher to the east).

By late afternoon, the hurricane raced northward at an amazing speed of nearly 50 mph crossing the Long Island Sound and reaching Connecticut (Landsea C.W., et al. 2013, National Hurricane Center; Hurricane Research Division Re-Analysis Project). The storm surge of 14-18 feet above normal tide level inundated parts of Long Island and later the southern New England coastline. The waters in Providence harbor rapidly submerged the downtown area of Rhode Island’s capital under more than 13 feet of water and many people were swept away. The accelerating hurricane then continued northward at tremendous speed across Massachusetts generating great flooding in its path.

Saltaire, NY flooding damage (top); Mystic, CT flooding damage (bottom)

In Milton, a town south of Boston, the Blue Hill Observatory recorded one of the highest wind gusts in history at an incredible 186 mph. Boston was hit hard and “Old Ironsides” – the historic ship USS Constitution – was torn from its moorings in Boston Navy Yard and suffered slight damage. Hundreds of other ships were not so lucky being completely demolished. The hurricane lost intensity as it passed over northern New England, but was still strong enough to cause widespread damage in Canada later that evening before finally dissipating over southeastern Canada later that night. All told, approximately 682 people were killed by the hurricane, 600 of them in Long Island and southern New England, 9000 homes and buildings were destroyed and 3000 ships were sunk or wrecked. It remains the most powerful and deadliest hurricane in recent New England history, eclipsed in landfall intensity perhaps only by the Great Colonial Hurricane of 1635. According to Meteorologist Joe Bastardi, in the long period from 1938 to 1991, New England was directly hit by a hurricane on an average of once every 6.7 years and there have been none since with the last being Hurricane Bob in August 1991.

Final notes on the storm

In terms of weather forecasting for this storm, while the US Weather Bureau did not predict a hurricane landfall, that decision was not without controversy as a junior forecaster named Charlie Pierce believed the storm would curve into Long Island and southern New England due to blocking high pressure to the northeast and trough of low pressure which would guide the storm inland in his opinion.  Mr. Pierce was overruled by the chief forecaster, Charles Mitchell.  Shortly thereafter, Charles Mitchell resigned and Charlie Pierce was promoted. 

Source: NY Daily News

[Video was captured from the “Great New England Hurricane” of September 1938; courtesy YouTube].

Meteorologist Paul Dorian

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Peta of Newark
September 20, 2023 11:35 pm

here we have it:“”To make matters worse, this part of the country had just been through a long rainy period which saturated grounds before the arrival of this great storm

I beg to differ – matters were not ‘made worse‘ – that ‘long rainy periodcaused the storm to arrive where it did – allied to the high tide

Why:The ‘long rain’ means that epic amounts of silt and mud and dust and soil and debris had been flushed out into the water by the Hudson River

That mud in the water would have been absorbing within the top 20 metres of water all the solar energy it would normally absorb in the top 100metres
That water would be = hot hot hot and absolutely magnetic to the storm

How far south did this rainy weather extend – as far as South Georgia maybe?
If it did, that is why the storm track veered so hard north as it approaceh Florida – it sensed all the energy available in the muddy water and went for it – following it all the way up the coast,

The mud was ‘a little way offshore’ and the storm would have stayed likewise.

But then No Coincidence. The big high tide arrived just as Long Island was going past.
The tide pushed that hot muddy water back towards the coast/shoreline
The storm duly responded this kind invitation, followed the trail of hot muddy water and slammed right into the mouth of the Hudson where the mud was coming from
The rest is history.
Even just cities themselves create immense dust and grot and smut AND hot water – the storm would have aimed for that alone

Soil Erosion and city-building caused this calamity = ploughs, tillage, deforestation, artificial fertilising and overgrazing.

Peta of Newark
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 20, 2023 11:38 pm

please someone go check on ‘rainy periods’ prior to Sandy –
Looks to me like Sandy was a near carbon copy

Capt Jeff
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 21, 2023 2:37 pm

Except Sandy was not a hurricane when it hit the coast, it was a tropical storm. You’re supposed to call it a “super storm” to mislead people. What Sandy showed is the stupidity of people ignore history (1938 hurricane) when developing coastal areas.

Peta of Newark
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 21, 2023 2:24 am

groan – too many Saints, too many tabs and too many islands..
Try this one instead..

Cape Verde Take 2.JPG
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 21, 2023 3:40 am

Peta – tropical storms are not guided by water temperatures, warm or cold. They are guided by pressure systems, high and low. There is nothing “magnetic” about warm water. Tropical storms constantly travel to cooler waters … indeed the several systems in the Atlantic these past two weeks were drawn northward, over much cooler water, by air pressure systems.

Reply to  Duane
September 21, 2023 5:59 am

PETA is a “climate scientist”, display near zero knowledge of real science.
Best to ignore such folks.

Peta of Newark
September 21, 2023 2:07 am

Sorry – I may have spoiled your day

Sorry again BUT, it’s about to get worse.

We’re told that this storm (and almost all Atlantic storms) originate from the Cape Verde Islands – off the west coast of Africa

That is No Coincidence
Start with: Surprise surprise, as attached, Cape Verde Isles are = Green.
They are also near the mouths of some quite big rivers with watersheds along the southern edge of The Sahara. They will be moving immense amounts of dirt into the water around those isles. El Sol will be heating it ‘unusually’ = all Sol’s heat will be absorbed and stored close to the surface.
There is also, normally, the Azores High = a huge cyclonic circulation that will work as a vacuum cleaner, pulling dust off the desert – along the general line of Senegal and the Gambia River.
Does (even the stated) 40 million tonnes of that make it across the pond to fertilise the Amazon Forest?
If so, how much falls into the water and onto the Cape Verde Isles – is THAT why the Cape Verde Isles are = Verdant / Green? Fertilised by Saharan Dirt?
(There is A Lesson there)

Now: Greenery = plants and trees and they control water. Their existences depend upon it and they’ve had 4billion+ years to perfect their craft/skill.
So, if the trees on Cape Verde find ‘things are getting a bit warm today‘ – they will release some of their stored water (that’s what trees are = Water Stores – Carbon is incidental to that)
That water vapour, just modestly warm at maybe 25°C or more, will be extremely buoyant as water vapour is, will rise into the sky making clouds, rain and occasionally, a thunderstorm.
The trees thus protect themselves from the heat of the sun.

See where we’re going: What if one of those T-storms floats off the island that created it and onto that hot oceanic water created by the desert dust?

And if vertical/horizontal wind shear is ‘just right’ -we get a mega T-storm.
What does it do if not get picked up by the westward flow (Trade Wind) along the southern edge of the Azores High and is carried out over the ocean.
But but but, all the way and by definition, it will be being carried over muddied water = made muddy by The High itself carrying/dropping Saharan dust
The hot water created by that dust will reinforce the storm as its carried westwards.

Is that not exactly what hurricanes do and exactly the very track they all follow?

OK. In the best tradition of Climate Science, we will cheerfully ignore The 2nd Law and give ourselves clocks that run backwards – back 6,000 years to when the Sahara was created via the destruction of what had to have been a rainforest.
It was, we’re told all about lakes and rivers not least. Hardly features of your average desert.
Strangely, the Holocene Warm Period crashed to an abrupt halt at exactly the same time.
Earth plunged into the current Ice Age in a similar way to when Henry 8th chopped all the trees in England and NW Europe
All those trees weren’t keeping the place warm by any chance – it looks that way.
NB “warm” as in an average of mid 20’s Celsius and NOT = hot of 30°C+

So where did the forest go – are you really saying that 9 million km² of rainforest simply vanished because of a dearth of sunspots or the alignment of the constellations?

Get real:somebody‘ chopped and burned those trees and relentlessly burned the resultant grasslands trying to corral and catch the critters that came to eat the grass.

(Atlantic at least) Hurricanes are Entirely Man Made

Thus, we really do want to buck our ideas up, admit that ‘we humans’ have made mistakes over the last few 10’s thousands of years AND changed the Climate in making them.
Not least because the contemporary insane rush into Net Zero is only going to put immense extra pressure on what little greenery there is left on this planet.
It is ‘lack of absorptions‘ causing the Keeling Curve to ramp up – NOT surplus emissions and Net Zero is only going to increase the lack

pass the message on……………

Cape Verde Green.jpg
Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 21, 2023 3:49 am

Peta – the Cape Verde islands are green (on the upwind side only – semi arid elsewhere) because they are mountainous (they were formed by huge volcanos erupting from the ocean floor) and receive large amounts of precipitation due to the northeast trade winds … and because they are surrounded by ocean to the east and northeast which means that the air upwind of them is a marine air mass, i.e. humid. The effect or orographic lift causes rains to fall on the northeast side of the mountains.

This is much the same as Hawaii, whose climate is also influenced by the northeast trades and is near the same latitude. The mountainous Hawaiian islands are very green on the upwind sides, but semi arid on the down wind sides.

don k
Reply to  Duane
September 21, 2023 5:05 am

On top of which, the Cape Verde Islands are actually named for Cap-Vert in Senegal — the Westernmost point in Africa — which lies 600km to the East. Is Cap Vert actually green? Damned if I know. I believe that it’s sort of on the edge of the Sahara. I’ve read that it’s seasonally verdant. But I’ve also read that the rocks there are greenish. Anyway, the 15th Century Portuguese explorers who came across it presumably had to call it something and they chose Cap-Vert.

Reply to  Peta of Newark
September 21, 2023 9:50 am

Such a long post. So little reality.

September 21, 2023 3:13 am

In terms of weather forecasting for this storm, while the US Weather Bureau did not predict a hurricane landfall, that decision was not without controversy as a junior forecaster named Charlie Pierce believed the storm would curve into Long Island and southern New England due to blocking high pressure to the northeast and trough of low pressure which would guide the storm inland in his opinion. Mr. Pierce was overruled by the chief forecaster, Charles Mitchell. Shortly thereafter, Charles Mitchell resigned and Charlie Pierce was promoted. 

Different times. Today, Pierce would have been fired and Mitchell promoted.

Reply to  Graemethecat
September 21, 2023 3:18 am

Glad I looked before I posted Graemethecat. I was about to post exactly the same opinion.

Reply to  Graemethecat
September 21, 2023 9:53 am

Back then, a gentleman who screwed up such a big call would routinely resign. Today they figure out how to blame someone else.

September 21, 2023 3:38 am

This season is not over by a long shot and there still remains the potential for a big one to hit the NE US.

BTW, the probability of a strike on Texas this year is getting pretty low. Historically land falling TS, or hurricanes on Texas after September are not as common as one might think so close to the peak. Too bad, because the state sure could use the rain from a good TS in the central and eastern parts of the state.
The last time Texas took a hit in October was from the remnants of Patricha in 2015.

You will notice that the vast majority of on the list since 1980 are remnants or storms that did not come ashore:

  • October 13, 2008 – Hurricane Norbert causes moderate rainfall over West Texas after moving inland from the eastern Pacific.[125]
  • November 10, 2009 – Hurricane Ida causes minimal effects on Texas, producing high tides that lead to road closures.[126]
  • October 10, 2004 – Tropical Storm Matthew moves ashore in southern Louisiana, producing locally heavy rainfall in eastern Texas, peaking at 6.10 in (155 mm) in Matagorda, but little damage.[18][101]
  • Mid-October 1998 – Moisture associated with the remnants of Hurricane Madeline results in flooding in Central Texas.[76] The event breaks numerous rain records in the region, including the wettest month for San Antonio since records began in 1885.[73] In addition, 15 rivers exceed the previously known peak flow.[73] The floods kill 31 people.[76] and cause $1.5 billion in damages.[77]
  • October 4, 1996 – Tropical Storm Josephine forms just offshore of the Texas coast, bringing heavy rain to the state. Rainfall peaks at 10.81 in (275 mm) in Brownsville.[18] The storm, although remaining offshore, causes severe beach erosion across much of the coast.[71] Several houses are lost and up to 65 ft (20 m) of shore-front property on Galveston Island is eroded.[71]
  • Mid-October 1994 – The remnants of Hurricane Rosa cause severe flooding in Texas.[63] In some locations the flood is considered a 100-year event, peaking at 29.40 in (747 mm) in Cypress.[63] The floods kill 22 people and cause $700 million in damages.[63]
  • October 3, 1990 – Tropical Storm Rachel‘s remnants affect portions of West Texas.[56] Roads in Big Bend National Park are closed due to high water levels. Rainfall peaks at 1.5 in (38 mm) in Lubbock, causing minor street flooding, which leads to several car accidents.[56]
  • October 16, 1989 – Hurricane Jerry affects the Galveston area as a minimal hurricane. The storm kills three people when a car is blown off The Galveston seawall. Jerry causes $70 million in damage and kills three.[1][55]
  • October 22, 1986 – The remnants of Hurricane Roslyn produce rainfall over much of southern and eastern Texas, with the heaviest totals along the middle Texas coast, where rainfall totals exceeds 10 in (250 mm).[37] Roslyn causes low-water crossings and streams to flood.[38]
  • October 11, 1985 – The remnants of Hurricane Waldo produce rainfall over most of West Texas, with multiple rain totals of at least 5 in (130 mm).[27]
  • Mid-October 1983 – The remnants of Hurricane Tico from the Eastern Pacific cause rainfall over much of Texas, most of which is in northern Texas, where rainfall peaks at 9.59 in (0.244 m) in Quanah.[18][24] Numerous road closures take place due to the floods caused by the remnants of Tico.[25] In Val Verde County, 100 people are evacuated due to the heavy rain. Tico’s remnants kill one person and cause $93 million in damages.[1]
  • October 13, 1981 – Hurricane Norma makes landfall on the Pacific coast of Mexico, but its remnants produce 21 in (530 mm) of rain near Dallas-Fort Worth, killing five.[14] Multiple tornadoes touch down in six counties in the region, injuring three.[15] Hurricane Norma causes $50 million in damages and kills three people in Texas.[16]
  • Mid-November 1980 – Hurricane Jeanne over the Western Gulf of Mexico causes tides to rise up to 4 ft (1.2 m) above average along the Texas coast. Coastal flooding also occurs, with the worst being near Galveston. Minimal damage is reported.[10][11]
Reply to  rah
September 21, 2023 10:41 am


Do not forget Opal, which hit Panhandle first week of October, 1995. See:

Only reason little media coverage was the O.J. vedict was announced the afternoon before. Only “interested” folks here in the Panhandle knew it was comming and the NHC nailed the track really well.

Gums sends…

September 21, 2023 3:55 am

We have western written records going back to Christopher Columbus’s several voyages to the new world wherein he directly experience hits from landfalling major hurricanes – one of which (on his second voyage) nearly completely destroyed his first permanent settlement on Hispaniola, Isabella. On his third voyage, Columbus was on the outs with the then-governor of the colony, so his ships were denied entry to anchor in the harbor of Santo Domingo, the colonial capital. So he was forced to anchor down the coast of Hispaniola, which turned out to be a very lucky move, as a major hurricane made a direct landfall on Santo Domingo and completely destroyed the entire fleet of Spanish ships anchored in the harbor, but Columbus’s ships, though battered, survived.

That was two deadly major hurricanes landfalling in nearly the same spot within a 3 year period.

Must’ve been due to global warming, obviously!

Reply to  Duane
September 21, 2023 5:05 am

And fuel efficiency was much higher back then. Could get 1000s of miles per galleon.

Joseph Zorzin
September 21, 2023 4:06 am

Because of that hurricane the Army Corp of Engineers planned to build dams for flood control on many of the streams entering the Connecticut River, New England’s largest. In the ’40s they started on this dam building. They built one near where I live in north central Wokeachuetts, called Tully Lake. It’s now considered one of the best kayaking lakes in New England. By the ’60s the enviros decided that they hate all dams so this work, which would otherwise take a few generations, stopped. We’ve had heavy rainfall this summer but so far not much in the way of flooding. Some flooding in nearby Leomininster after they got 9″ of rain but without another hurricane we’re not going to see the flooding that occured in ’38. But when another hurricane does hit us and towns are flooded- I hope it’s pointed out that the enviros prevented flood control projects. Of course not building in flood plains is the real solution but it’s a bit late here since the region has been populated for a few centuries. Communities were built along the streams next to water powered mills. Prior to those mills most communities were built on nearby high ground as people were concerned about malaria near the water and Native Americans who often travelled along the rivers.

September 21, 2023 5:56 am

If 850-ft tall, onshore and offshore wind turbines had existed, most of them would be damaged beyond repair, even if the blades were feathered and locked.

If rooftop and field mounted solar systems had existed, most of them would be damaged beyond repair.

That means any state bureaucrats/legislators foolish enough to outlaw fossil fuels and mandate the VERY EXPENSIVE wind/solar route would not be able to restore ELECTRICITY SERVICE FOR YEARS

Reply to  wilpost
September 21, 2023 10:10 am

In the mid 1960s, my girlfriend near Hartford, CT, took me to the site where her house stood.
All that was left was the concrete slab.

In 1938, a dam had broken and the flood wiped out everything, similar to Libya today.

She said, they had been visiting friends in New Jersey, could not travel, so stayed for a few more days

When they returned to CT, they were literally homeless. Everything was gone.

Reply to  wilpost
September 21, 2023 10:28 am

My mother lived in New Jersey as a child in 1938. The big tree in her small back yard partially fell–onto the house. When I was a child she would not let us in the kitchen of that house if there was a storm. She was afraid the rest of the tree would come down. That storm was far reaching.

John the Econ
September 21, 2023 7:29 am

“Charles Mitchell resigned and Charlie Pierce was promoted.”

Clearly, government worked better back then.

September 21, 2023 9:26 am

For every hyperbolic adjective or adverb that is used to describe a weather occurrence today you can find the same, usually worse, condition in history. Yet the term “the new normal” lives on.

September 21, 2023 9:47 am

My maternal grandparents told stories of Framingham. My dad was young in Western Massachusetts but remembered. His older sister survives and has related first hand the damage in the Connecticut River Valley (the eye storm track).

September 21, 2023 11:38 am

Very nice.

Capt Jeff
September 21, 2023 2:17 pm

Why not mention the New Foundland Hurricane of 1775 that was the worst natural disaster in Canadian history? 4,000+ lives lost.

Reply to  Capt Jeff
September 21, 2023 3:46 pm

Hurricanes were more intense during the Little Ice Age. Colder means stormier. New England/Nova Scotia hurricane of 1757, during the French and Indian War:

September 21, 2023 2:38 pm

My mom (Brooklyn) recalls the danger coming home from school because of air-borne garbage cans.

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