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HURRICANE OF 1938 September 21, 1970

Posted by thenaturalist in Hurricanes, Weather History.
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Many older Vermonters still remember the Hurricane of September 21, 1938. One friend told me her grandmother gathered the family around her, assigned parts, and conducted a dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Another friend remembers trees being down on all the roads that led to his school.

According to the National Weather Service, the Hurricane of 1938 was the most powerful and destructive storm to hit New England during the 20th century. And David Ludlum, in discussing Vermont’s weather disasters, ranks this hurricane second only to the Flood of 1927.

This hurricane was even more devastating than it might have been because it arrived without warning. The National Weather Service was quite certain that it would blow out to sea before it made landfall. Only one junior forecaster predicted that it was headed straight toward Long Island and New England.

So when the hurricane made landfall on Long Island in the middle of the afternoon on September 21, it caught people enjoying a warm fall day at the beach. They noticed large whitecaps and saw what they thought was a fog bank rolling toward them, but they had no idea a hurricane was about to hit.

The “fog” turned out to be a huge wave of water — the hurricane’s storm surge. Survivors of that initial surprise thought the worst was over when the sky cleared and the sun came out, but about an hour later the storm came back. The calm within the hurricane’s huge eye had merely deceived them and then dealt a second surprise.

By 6 p.m., the hurricane had roared from Long Island to Vermont. The center blew through Marlboro and followed a track from Weston to Rutland, Brandon, Middlebury, and Vergennes. At about 9 p.m. it left, headed toward Montreal where it damaged one last city before dissipating over Canada.

The Hurricane of 1938 damaged all of New England’s forests, but according to David Ludlum, Vermont’s “suffered most severely.” Hundreds of thousands of trees went down. You can still see evidence of the wind in the remains of the trees or their root mounds. All point to the northwest, indicating a hurricane.

The Hurricane of 1938 remains one of the worst weather disasters ever to strike New England. But if a similar storm struck today, it would do even more damage because so many more people live in its track. Case studies show that a repeat could be the greatest weather disaster in U.S. history — which should keep us Vermonters respectful of the occasional hurricanes that blow our way.

MORE INFORMATION:

American Experience | The Hurricane of ’38 | Maps
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/hurricane38/maps/index.html

The Hurricane of 1983 made landfall on September 21. This PBS site includes a map of the hurricane’s route, historic photos, and descriptive text.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 – The Long Island Express
http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/38hurricane/

A professor at the State University of New York at Suffolk produced this comprehensive history of the hurricane New Yorkers know as the Long Island Express.

THE GREAT NEW ENGLAND HURRICANE of 1938 (CAT 3 – September 21)
http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/box/hurricane1938.htm

The National Weather Service offers this brief official history of the hurricane.

Many older Vermonters still remember the Hurricane of September 21, 1938. One friend told me her grandmother gathered the family around her, assigned parts, and conducted a dramatic reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Another friend remembers trees being down on all the roads that led to his school.

According to the National Weather Service, the Hurricane of 1938 was the most powerful and destructive storm to hit New England during the 20th century. And David Ludlum, in discussing Vermont’s weather disasters, ranks this hurricane second only to the Flood of 1927.

This hurricane was even more devastating than it might have been because it arrived without warning. The National Weather Service was quite certain that it would blow out to sea before it made landfall. Only one junior forecaster predicted that it was headed straight toward Long Island and New England.

So when the hurricane made landfall on Long Island in the middle of the afternoon on September 21, it caught people enjoying a warm fall day at the beach. They noticed large whitecaps and saw what they thought was a fog bank rolling toward them, but they had no idea a hurricane was about to hit.

The “fog” turned out to be a huge wave of water — the hurricane’s storm surge. Survivors of that initial surprise thought the worst was over when the sky cleared and the sun came out, but about an hour later the storm came back. The calm within the hurricane’s huge eye had merely deceived them and then dealt a second surprise.

By 6 p.m., the hurricane had roared from Long Island to Vermont. The center blew through Marlboro and followed a track from Weston to Rutland, Brandon, Middlebury, and Vergennes. At about 9 p.m. it left, headed toward Montreal where it damaged one last city before dissipating over Canada.

The Hurricane of 1938 damaged all of New England’s forests, but according to David Ludlum, Vermont’s “suffered most severely.” Hundreds of thousands of trees went down. You can still see evidence of the wind in the remains of the trees or their root mounds. All point to the northwest, indicating a hurricane.

The Hurricane of 1938 remains one of the worst weather disasters ever to strike New England. But if a similar storm struck today, it would do even more damage because so many more people live in its track. Case studies show that a repeat could be the greatest weather disaster in U.S. history — which should keep us Vermonters respectful of the occasional hurricanes that blow our way.

MORE INFORMATION:

American Experience | The Hurricane of ’38 | Maps
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/hurricane38/maps/index.html

The Hurricane of 1983 made landfall on September 21. This PBS site includes a map of the hurricane’s route, historic photos, and descriptive text.

The Great Hurricane of 1938 – The Long Island Express
http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/38hurricane/

A professor at the State University of New York at Suffolk produced this comprehensive history of the hurricane New Yorkers know as the Long Island Express.

THE GREAT NEW ENGLAND HURRICANE of 1938 (CAT 3 – September 21)
http://www.erh.noaa.gov/er/box/hurricane1938.htm

The National Weather Service offers this brief official history of the hurricane.

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Comments»

1. Robert E. Hope - January 5, 2012

As a boy I attended Camp Passumpsic on Lake Fairlee, Ely,VT. My first year was 1948 some 10 years after the hurricane of 1938 I remember getting off the train at Ely Station, being met by the camp truck-“Easy Riding Dodge” and riding on Rte. 113 from Ely to Lake Fairlee, about 3 miles. The road was almost completely blocked by downed trees and debris necessitating one-way traffic without benefit of sheriff or state police assistance with traffic. Hard to imagine that this situation had existed for 10 years. Some progress was made during the summer, but it wasn’t until late Spring of 1949 that the roadway was opened for regular/normal travel. R.E.Hope

thenaturalist - January 6, 2012

Robert,

Thanks for this interesting bit of history. So far we haven’t had a repeat of the Hurricane of 1938, but the flooding that followed Hurricane Irene motivated comparisons to the 1927 Flood.

Gale Lawrence


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