The Eastern Seaboard Hurricane of 1938

About the Eastern Seaboard Hurricane of 1938, the history of the disaster and destruction that followed.


Despite modern communication networks, storm-warning broadcasts, ship-to-shore radios, and countless weather stations, hurricanes can be elusive and unpredictable. The hurricane that struck the eastern seaboard at the height of the summer season played hide-and-seek at sea for days before it came ashore to cause one of the worst disasters in the history of the U.S.

When: September 21, 1938.

Where: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont.

The Loss: 600 dead. An estimated 30,000 injured: 93,000 homeless; 16,000 homes and business buildings destroyed; 750,000 livestock and poultry lost; 26,000 autos and 2,500 boats ruined. Property damage above #1 billion.

The Disaster: Born as a "weak low," the 1st week in September in the Bilma Oasis of the South Central Sahara, it grew into a "circular disturbance" in the hurricane-breeding ground of the Atlantic, then seemingly vanished only to reappear on the 16th. The Brazilian ship Alegrete reported it in the Caribbean, 500 mi. northeast of the Leeward Islands, blowing along at 64 mph. Playing tag with ships and islands and changing directions, it missed St. Martin in the Leeward group and bypassed Miami, Fla., to ruffle Mayaguana, then kept on traveling. The storm wasn't considered serious enough to worry about. By the afternoon of the 21st, the eastern seaboard was saturated from heavy rains, catnip to a hurricane. The stage was set for a grand entrance.

The full-blown hurricane arrived in New York City and Long Island just in time to interrupt the soap opera broadcasts. Too late, weather bureaus announced the tropical storm simultaneously with its arrival. Subways were the 1st to be flooded out. Ships in the harbor doubled their moorings. At 2:30 P.M. the streets of Manhattan were targets for pieces of roofing and broken signs. A mile inland at Quogue, seawater, 2' deep, submerged lawns and sidewalks.

On schedule, the Bostonian, train number 14, left Grand Central Station for New Haven, Conn. Before it reached there, all but 5 cars were derailed at Stonington. Engineer Eaton managed to get 5 cars to higher ground, saving all but 2 of his 275 passengers. New Haven's Savin Rock amusement park slid into the sea. Many people near the coast, more curious than wise, piled into family cars to head for the beaches to see what a hurricane was like. They didn't make it. Most were drowned when their cars became submerged. Lighthouses fell before the gale-force winds. Homes crumbled as if they were made of matchsticks. Boats and broken pieces of piers ended up inland in city streets. Harvard's observatory at Milton recorded 186 mph gusts. Old Ironsides rode out another storm safely at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Through 5 States the hurricane rampaged. Sugar-maple orchards in Vermont were uprooted to leave bare fields. At 8 P.M. Lake Champlain resembled the stormy Atlantic. All through the night heroism, cowardice, and foolishness were part of the utter chaos that left in its wake unbelievable devastation.

Aftermath: The Treasury doors of the U.S. were opened wide by President Roosevelt, and army units were assigned to aid the storm victims. Property damage exceeded that of the San Francisco quake and the Chicago fire. There were 6,923 churches that suffered damage and many were totally destroyed. Inexplicably, Episcopal churches and synagogues were left undamaged.

Tomorrow: Along the Gulf Coast, in 1969, Hurricane Camille did as much property damage but, with more efficient warning systems, loss of life was far below the eastern seaboard tragedy.

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