The New England Hurricane of 1938

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Hurricane Wilma0001.jpg

           Eye of Hurricane Wilma       October 31, 2005


Our recent "brush" with Hurricane Irene reminded me of something that happened when I was a young boy. In the summer, I used to spend a week with my grandparents, who lived in East Providence, RI. My grandfather used to work in downtown Providence as a Traffic Manager for a trucking firm.  My grandmother and I would take a bus into the city to meet my grandfather for lunch. One day, we were walking downtown when my grandmother stopped and pointed to a marker on one of the buildings. She told me that that was how high the water rose in downtown Providence during the 1938 Hurricane. At the time, it looked to me like it was 30 feet high, but upon further research, I learned it was "only" 13 feet! 

Although the "Long Island Express" (as it was called) came ashore at Bayport, Long Island, and continued up into Rhode Island, it still had a significant impact on Greenwich. It had been raining in Greenwich since Saturday, September 17th, due to a trough of low pressure. The Greenwich Time had predicted "Cloudy, probably showers, (more?) tonight and Sunday. Slightly warmer tonight." On Monday, September 19th, the headlines read "Heavy rain causes car crashes- Many skidding accidents caused by slippery conditions". Tax Collector R.M. Wilcox, an amateur meteoroloigst, reported 1.68 inches of rain had fallen over the weekend. Monday's forecast read "Showers tonight and Tuesday, not much change in temperature". As Tuesday dawned, the Greenwich Time read "Town drenched by rain, but no damage reported: Three inches of rainfall recorded: Byram River rises one foot." It was reported that 3 inches had fallen in 76 hours. It had been raining slowly but steadily, and the manholes and catch basins were able to handle it.

The weather on the eve of the hurricane was forecast as "Rain and cooler tonight and Wednesday". As Wednesday, September 21, 1938, dawned, the headline read "Byram (River) overflows in Chickahominy and Pemberwick. According to Mr. Wilcox, 2.89 inches of rain had fallen in 24 hours.  This meant 5.94 inches had fallen since Saturday. The Byram River was threatening to flow overbanks. The Felt Mill in Glenville was only 1 1/2 feet above the river!  Needless to say, the ground was saturated, and all the New England rivers were already near flood stage.

This meant the stage was set for a "Perfect Storm".   A blocking trough of low pressure was located to the west of New England.  A high pressure system over the Maritme Provinces in Canada blocked any coastal storm from moving east.   This would steer the storm directly toward New England.  Since it was the time of the Autumnal Equinox, both the Sun and Moon's gravity would combine to create an astronomical (above average) high tide, adding to the storm surge.  The hurricane had formed off the west coast of Africa, as most hurricanes do.  Radar hadn't been invented, yet.  A Merchant Marine ship had notified the National Weather Bureau in Washington, but the NWB predicted the hurricane would blow itself out over North Carolina. 


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                                  COURTESY:   The Providence Journal


 Not only did it not die out, but it actually picked up speed in the upper latitudes.  When it hit Long Island at 2:30 pm on September 21, it was travelling 60 miles-per-hour with 186 mph winds!   When the tidal surge and surf hit Long Island, it was picked up on a seismograph (instrument for detecting earthquakes) in Alaska!   The eye of the storm was 50 miles wide. Winds as high as 120 mph were reported at the top of the Empire State Building in New York. At the Blue Hill Observatory south of Boston reported gusts of 186 mph and sustained winds of 121 mph.  This storm was indeed a monster!


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             Dunes Beach Club in Narragansett.   COURTESY: Treasures of Connecticut


Most of the damage from this storm was caused by wind, fire, flood waters and tidal surges. In New London, a ship called the Marsala was smashed into a warehouse complex, causing a short circuit which ignited a huge fire.  Fire consumed a 1/4 mile area along the waterfront. The greatest destruction, however, occured in Rhode Island.  If you look at a map of the state, you can see that Narragansett Bay narrows as it heads north towards Providence.  Any storm surge will be forced into a "funnel", which amplifies the tide.  As I mentioned earlier, the water was 13-feet 8 1/2-inches high on a building in downtown Providence.  People were swept around the streets, and guests at the Biltmore Hotel held bedsheets out the window in hopes that people could grab on.  Cars, buses and trollies were tossed around like toys.  Many people were killed because no one knew the great storm was coming.  

 The numbers are staggering.   It was reported that 600 people were killed and 100 more were never found. Property damage was listed as $400 million (in 2005 dollars).  Approximately 8,000 homes were destroyed and 6,000 boats were wrecked or damaged.   In the 1960s, officials authorized the building of a dam to prevent future tidal surges from flooding downtown Providence.   The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Fox Point Flood Barrier, which was dedicated on March 19, 1966.   It was designed to stop future surges in Providence by pumping 3,150,000 gallons of water per minute with 137-ton impellors and 4,500 hp motors. The project cost millions of dollars, but was well worth the investment

Next time:        Greenwich and the Great Hurricane of 1938.


SOURCES:    The Greenwich Time  & The Providence Journal

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on August 29, 2011 8:12 PM.

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