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Lessons from 1938

Published September 21. 2013 4:00AM

It arrived unexpectedly on these shores 75 years ago this day and remains the worst natural disaster to befall Long Island and southern New England in modern times. While it is highly unlikely that another storm will ever surprise the region as did the Hurricane of 1938, that fact is little solace and no reason for complacency.

Given the density of modern coastal development, a storm on the scale of the 1938 hurricane would cause vast property damage in Connecticut and Rhode Island. Of greater concern would be the potential for loss of life. Even with modern forecasting methods, a 1938-style hurricane would provide a challenge for forecasters and emergency management officials.

Using tools primitive by today's standards - telegraph information relayed from ships and surface reports from inland weather stations - the U.S. Weather Bureau (forerunner of the National Weather Service) forecast that the large, powerful hurricane would follow a typical pattern and spin out to sea, a danger only to shipping lanes.

However, an atypical weather pattern, similar to the one that sent Superstorm Sandy into the Jersey Shore last October, prevented the hurricane from re-curving. Instead, it moved straight north, making landfall on eastern Long Island and then southeastern Connecticut.

By the time storm warnings were issued, the hurricane had arrived, around 3 p.m. It was traveling with tremendous forward speed, 50 mph, several times faster than characteristic for a hurricane, a situation that would complicate evacuations even in these days of satellite images and computer forecasting. The speed left little time for colder northern waters to sap the storm's strength. It arrived as a major hurricane, rare so far north.

Estimates vary, but about 10,000 buildings were destroyed, double that were seriously damaged. It destroyed the region's fishing fleet. Tens of thousands of trees were felled. About 600 people died. A large section of downtown New London burned. Total estimated damages were $18 billion, measured in today's numbers, remarkable given a much smaller population and low-density development. (Sandy caused about $65 billion damage in the United States.)

When such a storm threatens again, heed the warnings. Modern forecasting will not help if people ignore it.

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