Remembering the Great Hurricane of 1938

Could a hurricane make landfall and do serious harm to the Long Island Sound coast and the rest of New England? That was a question Peg Van Patten, Communications Director of Connecticut Sea Grant, raised in an article, “A Hurricane in New England?,” which  she wrote for NOAA’s website in 2010. The article describes the latest research on predicting extreme weather events with a look back seven decades to when a really really big storm devastated Long Island Sound and the rest of the northeast–The Great New England Hurricane of 1938, also known as the Long Island Express. In that storm, around 600 people died (estimates vary) and damage in 2010 dollars was $5 billion.

Fishermen in Stonington, Connecticut, carry a wicker basket containing human remains found at the waterfront following the New England Hurricane of 1938. The hurricane totally destroyed about 2,600 fishing vessels and damaged about 3,400 more. Immediately after the storm, only three commercial fishing vessels remained useable in Southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island. Photo by A. Morgan Stewart,The Day, courtesy of Peg Van Patten.

Fishermen in Stonington, Connecticut, carry a wicker basket containing human remains found at the waterfront following the New England Hurricane of 1938. Photo by A. Morgan Stewart, The Day, courtesy of Peg Van Patten.

Of course, soon  after Van Patten’s article was published, Long Island Sound was hit with Tropical Storm Irene, followed by Superstorm Sandy, two devastating storms that showed that not all hurricanes and tropical storms veer toward the oceans as they move up from the south.

Superstorm Sandy, a storm that transitioned from a hurricane to a post-tropical storm, was a particularly unusual event. Typically hybrid storms form in the ocean and become weaker. In this case, when Hurricane Sandy merged with an extratropical winter storm it  made a left turn, veering west toward the east coast. It also got bigger and regained its strength, helping to make it one of the mostly costly and deadly storms in our history.

Most scientists agree that attributing specific extreme weather events such as Superstorm Sandy is challenging because these events by definition are rare. But as Van Patten pointed out in her article, many scientists believe that with a warmer climate, warmer, moister atmospheres over the oceans will result in stronger storms.

Predicting the frequency of extreme weather events is also difficult, but  the northeast  experience a hurricane making landfall about once a decade over the past hundred years, although few have had the  impact as Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and the Great Hurricane of 1938.

Van Patten has been writing and editing articles about climate change for CT Sea Grant since the 1980s, including for the CT Sea Grant publication Wracklines. Click here for a list of some the articles.

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CT Sea Grant's archive of climate change related articles.


Peg Van Patten’s article, “A Hurricane in New England?” is also an account of how her father’s family from Stonington, CT survived the 1938 storm. Van Patten included photographs from her father’s collection to highlight the storm’s impact.