MAweatherboy1's Blog

75th Anniversary of the Great 1938 New England Hurricane

By: MAweatherboy1, 10:01 PM GMT on September 22, 2013

It has been months since I posted a blog, but today I am ending this lengthy stretch of no blogs to mark the 75th anniversary of the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, commonly referred to as the "Long Island Express" due to the rapid forward motion, estimated to be about 60mph, the system achieved before its landfall on Long Island on September 21, 1938. To this day, the 1938 hurricane remains the benchmark to which all New England hurricanes are measured. None have matched it since. We have taken several hits, including but not limited to Carol in 1954, Donna in 1960, Gloria in 1985, and Bob in 1991. More recently, the Northeast was impacted by Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. Sandy was really not that big of an issue for most of the region, the exception being the south coasts of Connecticut and Rhode Island as well as some east facing beaches in Massachusetts, especially Cape Cod, where coastal flooding and beach erosion was considerable. Irene in 2011 provided a bigger impact, with strong winds experiences in areas east of the track, and heavy rains to the west of it, which brought devastating flooding to parts of Vermont. Even so, neither of these storms compares to the Hurricane of 1938 strictly in terms of impacts to southern New England.
There was no warning in advance of the hurricane. None. Meteorology was still practically in its infancy at the time. There were no satellites, models, aircraft reconnaissance, etc. All we had were surface observations, and the only real method of determining ocean weather was ship reports. The forecasts, if they can even be called that, for September 21, 1938 indicated nothing particularly unusual, and the day began quite normally. It ended that way as well, actually. But in between, the day would go down as one that forever changed New England. Roughly 700 lives were lost, and the storm left about $300 million dollars of damage in its wake, equivalent to about $4.7 billion in today's dollars. The storm was a classic New England hurricane in the sense that by the time it reached New England's latitude, it was becoming extratropical and rapidly accelerating, to the extreme rate of about 60mph. Southerly winds piled water up along south coastal beaches, leading to devastating coastal flooding. Downtown Providence, RI was badly flooded. West of the track, heavy rains caused significant flooding, as the summer of 1938 had already been a particularly wet one for New England. East of the track, wind damage was extreme. Millions of trees were knocked over like dominoes, not to mention thousands of structures. At the height of the storm at the Blue Hill Observatory in Milton, MA, about 10 miles south of Boston, winds reached sustained levels of 121mph for five minutes, and a calculated peak instantaneous wind gust reached 186mph, which to this day remains one of the most significant hurricane wind gusts observed of all time. Interestingly, despite extreme winds like this, rainfall totals in these areas east of the track were negligible, with barely a tenth of an inch of rain recorded at Blue Hill on the 21st.

Pictures came off the 1938 hurricane Wikipedia page.

The above is far from a complete summary of that incredible storm, it is quite the opposite actually, nothing more than a brief glimpse at the event. There is plenty of reading out there for those who are interested to find, however.

Now to tie this event into myself... As you may have realized from looking at my brief personal biography, the same Blue Hill Observatory that recorded the 186mph wind gust is the Observatory that I work at now. It is the oldest continually operating meteorological observatory in North America. I am very fortunate to find myself in a position to work there. To make a long story short on how I ended up there:
1. In the winter of 2012, I contacted by email a meteorologist at a local TV station, asking if he knew of any good work/internship/education programs in the area for high school students interested in meteorology.
2. He suggested the internship program at Blue Hill. It's about a 30 minute drive from my house, so not an unreasonable distance, and it seemed like a great idea. I contacted one of the directors of the Observatory, set up an interview of sorts, and was accepted as a summer intern, working Tuesday-Thursday every week.
3. I interned that summer, and did a lot of intern-like work, all important but not all necessarily weather related. Still, I learned a lot from the weather observers, especially in the mornings when I was free to be up in the observers room. I was there from about 7:30 to 2:15 every Tuesday-Thursday, with the exception of one vacation week. It was awesome. I could tell plenty of stories but will save you the trouble of reading them all (maybe I'll save them for another blog!).
4. The summer ended, and I went back for my junior year of high school, hoping to be able to go back to Blue Hill as an intern the next summer. I stayed in touch with the people there, and one day (Friday, November 30, 2012, a day I will always remember), I went in for the day to just see how things were going since I had the day off from school.
5. I was told that day that one of the observers, whom I had worked with the previous summer on only one occasion, was leaving for a new job at WSI. He was primarily responsible for Sunday observations, and to keep it simple I was thought to be a good possible replacement for him because of my diligent work the previous summer. They asked me if I wanted a chance to become an observer, to which I of course said yes, and over the next several weeks I was trained by the senior observers on all the points of the job, particularly those I had not learned the previous summer.
6. By January 2013, I was a trained observer, ready to work days by myself. I really couldn't believe it. At the age of 16 I was a qualified observer at one of the most prestigious meteorological facilities in the country. My schedule was a little inconsistent at first, but it has become more normal now. Basically, I will work both days of one weekend, just the Sunday of the next weekend, then have two weekends off before repeating that process. There are changes and exceptions, and I picked up a lot more days this past summer, but that's pretty much how it worked out.
So there's my story, in a nutshell. I wrote a lot more than I intended but it's still quite incomplete. And anyways, what does this have to do with the Hurricane of 1938 that this blog is about, besides the fact that Blue Hill is the place that measured those historic winds of 121mph 5 minute sustained and 186mph peak gust? Well, to keep it simple again, the Blue Hill Observatory hosted a commemorative event at Fuller Village in Milton, MA, just down the street from the base of the hill. The event was called to look back on the events of September 21, 1938, as well as some other memorable New England storms, and to look ahead to what would happen when (not if) another hurricane like the one in 1938 strikes the region. As an employee of Blue Hill and overall weather enthusiast, I felt it was a great opportunity, and decided to go.
The event started at 10AM, and continued through about 2:45 PM. After some opening remarks by Blue Hill executive director Charles Orloff, the first two speakers were both from the Taunton, MA NWS office. David Vallee, hydrologist in charge at the office, spoke first and gave a detailed summary of the behavior of the 1938 hurricane compared to other New England hurricanes. He was followed by Robert Thompson, the leading meteorologist at the office. He also gave remarks on the effects of the 1938 hurricane, but also looked ahead to what would happen if a similar event occurred today. It would be a catastrophe, to say the least. One of the few things that is the same now as it was in 1938 is the massive sense of hurricane complacency in the region. People in 1938 had never experienced anything like the hurricane that struck then, and today's generation of southern New England has seen many close calls but no significant hits since Bob in 1991, over 20 years ago. Dr. William Minsinger, an author and huge supporter of the Blue Hill Observatory, spoke next, giving mostly a summary in pictures of the damage- flooding, surge, and wind- of numerous storms in New England's history, including of course the hurricane of 1938.
Dr. Minsinger's talk ended at about 11:45, right on schedule, and we breaked for a buffet lunch. Towards the end of lunch, Dr. Rick Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center, made a video presentation from the NHC, comparing the forecasts, or lack thereof, of the 1938 hurricane to the spectacular NHC forecasts of Hurricane Sandy last year. Dr. Knabb also spoke about many of the products the NHC uses to alert the public in an advisory. Dr. Knabb was followed by the keynote speaker of the conference, Dr. Louis Uccellini, Director of the National Weather Service. He spoke at length on several topics, from past events to the future. He was excellent, the best speaker of the day in my opinion, though all were very good.
Dr. Knabb and Dr. Uccellini mentioned several potential upcoming advances in NHC products, including a graphical version of the new 5 day tropical weather outlook (likely to be available later this year or in 2014), as well as storm surge warnings for a hurricane, forecasts and warnings for storms before they develop, a higher resolution GFS with significantly more computing compacity by 2015, as well as a plan to extend the range of the GFS ensembles (not the operational GFS) to 31 days at some point within the next few years. I was most interested in this last part, since forecasts 16 days out, the current range of the operational GFS, have practically no accuracy. To conclude the conference, MIT professor and author Dr. Kerry Emmanuel spoke about the potential effects of climate change on hurricanes. I was tiring a bit by this point, and Dr. Uccellini was a tough act to follow, but his talk was still quite impressive. The overall theme seemed to be that no definitive links can be made between climate change and future hurricanes, but one likely effect is that the maximum potential strength of hurricanes under ideal conditions will be increased considerably due simply to the predicted increase in sea surface temperatures. Climate models have seemed to show the most warming occurring in the Northern Hemisphere, with cooling in parts of the Southern Hemisphere.
That was the end of the conference, besides a few closing remarks by Mr. Orloff. Following the conference, a private reception was held at the Observatory, which I also attended for an hour or so. I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of local TV meteorologists, as well as the MIT professor Dr. Emmanuel who made the final talk at the conference. Overall, it was a great day. I learned a lot and got to see and meet some very important figures within the field of meteorology.

Thank you for reading. I wish I could've had this out earlier but I couldn't finish it yesterday and I was working at Blue Hill today so couldn't get it finished until now. Let me know if you see any bad typos; I'm sure they're in there! Also, feel free to leave questions or comments because I didn't fit everything into this already lengthy blog. I hope you have a great week!


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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About MAweatherboy1

Average 20 year old weather nerd. Plymouth State University Meteorology, Class of 2018. NOAA Hollings scholar. Summer 2016 intern at NWS Boston.