As stated in an article back in 2001, many in the tri-state area, particularly along the New York and New Jersey coasts, don’t think that a major hurricane can happen here. Others have been tricked into thinking that hurricanes such as Gloria in September 1985 and Bob in August 1991, were major hurricanes.
These kinds of perceptions have given these residents a false sense of security. This false sense of security has turned into complacency, and that has become a huge obstacle for emergency management in terms of Hurricane Awareness and Preparedness.
Many experts in the region fear that a repeat of an event similar to the Long Island Express of 1938, would lead to devastation that would be worse than Hurricane Andrew in South Florida. Here we will discuss the 1938 Hurricane that hit Long Island and the stories of survival during that storm. Then, we’ll talk about whether or not, it can happen again here.
Storm Facts: The Long Island Express of 1938
In Scott Mandia’s website, The Long Island Express: The Great Hurricane of 1938, the Long Island Express Hurricane of 1938 as it has been called, struck Long Island and New England on September 21, 1938. It had sustained winds of 121 mph and a peak wind gust of 186 mph in Massachusetts.
The lowest pressure recorded with the storm was 27.94 inches of Hg while it generated a peak storm surge of 17 feet above normal in Rhode Island. Waves as high as 50 feet came crashing ashore near Gloucester, Massachusetts.
There were a total of about 100 people killed in the Long Island region while another 600 people were killed in New England. The damage caused by the storm in 1938 dollars was $6.2 million, which was adjusted to $15 billion by today’s standards.
The reason it was called the Long Island Express is because of the rapid fashion the storm moved up the East Coast, and into New England. Forward speed in the Long Island Express ranged between 60 and 70 mph up the coast. The forward motion added to the wind speeds in the Northeastern quadrant of the storm due to its counterclockwise motion.
The storm took many by surprise. Why? Well, several reasons. First, we didn’t have the technology in those days to spot such a storm while it was well out to sea. There was no satellite, radar, and even Hurricane Hunter aircraft, which started in the 1950s. Second, due to the lack of technology at the time, we didn’t have the communications infrastructure that we had now.
For example, we didn’t have news outlets like CNN and The Weather Channel with reporters dotting the coastline as the storm approached. There were radio reports that a storm was coming, but many didn’t take it seriously. That leads to our third reason, there just was a belief at that time that such a storm wasn’t possible in this part of the country. Unfortunately, they were wrong. Dead wrong.
Surviving the Long Island Express of 1938
Due to the fact that the 1938 Hurricane came to be a surprise for many living in the tri-state area as well as New England, there were many people that were either caught right in the middle of the storm outside or ventured outside to try to find a more secure place to ride out the storm.
Many had thought that it was a very powerful nor’ easter. However, nor ‘easters usually aren’t that strong in September. After all, it was only September 21st, the first day of fall, so summer like conditions were still probably a bit prevalent.
However, the summer leading up to the catastrophic storm was a very cool and wet one, which led many to wonder what was going on with the weather. According to the book, Wind To Shake The World, by Everett Allen, certain places in Massachusetts had record lows in the month of June that weren’t broken for almost a decade.
Rainfall amounts were up to 10 inches for the month in places such as New Bedford while Boston had accumulated 6.22 inches of rain for the month of July as of July 22nd, which was the most rainfall Boston had received in some 17 years.
One of the more notable stories in this book was the story of Frederic Foster de Rham, who was 54 years old, and working in New York City as a Vice President and trust officer of the Fulton Trust Company. He was returning to his home in Long Island from his job in the city when the storm hit. He was stuck on a train so he then got into his car at Warwick, and drove to his home.
The fifteen-minute trip that he usually took home lasted about two hours on impassable roads. The stress that he endured from overcoming obstacle after obstacle as well as trying to drive his automobile through unbelievable weather conditions was so great that he died upon his arrival at home from exhaustion and exposure.
Another story in the book that was also captivating was the story of several hurricane victims in Westhampton. Four of these people were in the Burghard household: Mr. Burghard and his wife Mabel and their friends Carl and Selma Dalin. These people had given an hourly account of the storm from 10:00 AM in the morning on September 21st to 4:15 PM that afternoon.
Throughout the account were incredible stories of how they went out into the storm seeking higher ground and more secure shelter. They endured tremendous winds, a surging ocean that was sweeping ashore, branches, tree limbs, and other objects flying around them.
They were able to get out and dodge these deadly obstacles, and get to safety somehow. Today, in a much more populated and highly developed Long Island, they probably would have been killed by some sort of flying debris. People just didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into.
People living today along the East Coast like myself would have thought that such actions would have been crazy. God, look at the Storm Chasers, and what they do, and despite the precautions that they make, many of us still think they’re crazy.
Now, today we have better technology and emergency planning, but with the population explosion, and the building and development that has taken place, we are probably even more vulnerable than ever to such a storm.
The Long Island Express of 1938: It Can and Will Happen Again
As the subtitle of this section says, the question, Can This Happen Again Here? Well, as we have pointed out in two recent articles, Tri-State Preparedness, and New Jersey’s Readiness, this can happen again. According to Mandias and a study done by J.E. Hughes in 1998, the answer is yes. They found that a major hurricane struck the New York Metropolitan area every 80 years or so.
Hughes stated that major hurricanes hit the New York region in 1635, 1815, 1821, 1893, and 1938. Meanwhile, New Jersey has not been directly impacted by a hurricane in some 180 years and is long overdue for one. A hurricane also supposedly struck Staten Island in November 1950, and it was the worst storm to hit there.
While this particular storm probably was not a hurricane since hurricanes usually don’t affect the East Coast in November as the season is winding down by that time, it may have been a nor’ easter. or a cold front that had hurricane-force winds associated with it. Nevertheless, this data shows that it can happen here, and the near misses of Gloria and Bob in 1985 and 1991 respectively have made us quite fortunate.
However, we need to realize the need for understanding that a powerful storm such as the Long Island Express of 1938 can happen here, and will happen again. Especially, now that we are entering a phase of increased tropical development in the Atlantic.
It is very important that residents of Long Island, the South Shore of Connecticut, and the Jersey Shore become better informed and better prepared so that they’ll be able to minimize property damage and loss of life when such a storm does come again. Hurricane Irene (2011) and Superstorm Sandy (2012) proved that.