While Hurricane Sandy looks like "the storm of the century" according to the mainstream media, another fall hurricane that hit coastal northeast United States was a record-breaker in its time.
The Long Island Express Hurricane of September 21, 1938 was, to that point in time, the costliest natural disaster to ever hit the United States. This category 3 hurricane caused storm surges of between 12 and 25 feet above mean low tide throughout the coastal communities of New England, resulting in the loss of over 690 lives.
Weather forecasters at the time expected that the Long Island Express would head toward the northeast and avoid the east coast of the United States, turning further out to sea. Unfortunately, once the storm reached the latitude of Cape Hatteras where it was expected to turn, the forward motion of the hurricane took it due north toward Long Island. This hurricane moved very quickly, reaching speeds of between 60 and 70 miles per hour as it approached the shorelines of Connecticut and Long Island. By comparison, Hurricane Sandy is approaching the continental United States at less than 30 miles per hour. The first landfall of the Long Island Express occurred over the central part of Long Island at which time the eye of the hurricane was up to 50 miles wide. Barometric pressures reached a low of 27.94 inches or 946 millibars in Bellport, New York, slightly higher than Sandy's current 940 millibars. Steady wind speeds peaked at 121 miles per hour in Milton, Massachusetts and 87 mph in Providence, Rhode Island before the station's anemometer was destroyed. Overall peak wind gusts reached 186 miles per hour. At the top of the Empire State Building, wind gusts of 120 miles per hour were recorded compared to "only" 60 miles per hour at ground level in Central Park. Rainfall amounts were relatively tame on the east side of the hurricane's track with Bridgehampton on Long Island receiving 4.32 inches in total in a single day. On the west side of the track, two inches of rain per hour fell and over 17 inches of rain fell in the four days prior to and during the hurricane. Rivers flooded to record levels, resulting in the drowning of many additional victims.
Here is a map from the United States Department of Commerce, Weather Bureau showing the track of the Long Island Express:
Here is some old footage showing the impact of the Long Island Express on coastal New England:
Interestingly, when the tidal surge hit the shores of Long Island in the mid-afternoon of September 21st, seismographs in Alaska registered the impact.
Here are two pictures of the damage resulting from the winds and storm surge:
After the storm, the beach in Westhampton, Long Island was destroyed and of the 179 homes along Dune Road, only 26 survived. Just in case you were wondering if history has taught us anything, here is the setting for a $6.25 million home located along the same stretch of beach:
Total damage from the Long Island Express surpassed $400 million in 1938 dollars ($6.446 billion in current dollars). Many experts blame the high death toll on poor forecasting of the storm's track.
Unfortunately, with much higher population density along the northeastern seaboard today than there was in 1938, the damage to property from hurricanes could be far greater. As well, when one looks at the density of housing located just above the high tide mark, lessons about what happens when you build at sea level from the past seem to have gone unlearned, an issue that may become even more apparent if global sea levels continue to rise.
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